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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Austria enrages Turkey with plan to shut 7 mosques

As many as 60 imams could also be expelled in move against 'political Islam'

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Interior Minister Herbert Kickl address a news conference in Vienna on June 8, 2018 at which they announced plans to close seven Turkish-funded mosques. Leonhard Foeger / Reuters
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Interior Minister Herbert Kickl address a news conference in Vienna on June 8, 2018 at which they announced plans to close seven Turkish-funded mosques. Leonhard Foeger / Reuters

Austria said on Friday it would shut down seven mosques and expel up to 60 Turkish-funded imams and their families as part of a crackdown on "political Islam", triggering fury in Ankara.

"The circle of people possibly affected by these measures - the pool that we're talking about - comprises around 60 imams," said Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in Austria's coalition government.

In total 150 people risked losing their right to residence, he said at a press conference in Vienna.

Ankara quickly denounced the move.

"Austria's decision to close down seven mosques and deport imams with a lame excuse is a reflection of the anti-Islam, racist and discriminatory populist wave in this country", presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said on Twitter.

Mr Kalin suggested the decision was part of efforts to "normalise Islamophobia and racism", which he said must be rejected.

"The Austrian government's ideologically charged practices are in violation of universal legal principles, social integration policies, minority rights and the ethics of co-existence," he said.

Seven mosques will be shut after an investigation by the religious affairs authority into images which emerged in April of children in a Turkish-backed mosque playing dead and re-enacting the First World War battle of Gallipoli.

"Parallel societies, political Islam and radicalisation have no place in our country," said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the ruling centre-right People's Party (OeVP).

In several cases the process of expelling imams connected to the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations (ATIB) organisation was underway, Mr Kickl said.

The interior minister added that the government suspected them of contravening a ban on foreign funding of religious office holders. ATIB is a branch of Turkey's religious affairs agency Diyanet.

The photos of children, published by the Falter weekly, showed the young boys in camouflage uniforms marching, saluting, waving Turkish flags and then playing dead.

Their "corpses" were then lined up and draped in the flags.

The mosque in question was run by ATIB.

ATIB itself condemned the photos at the time, calling the event "highly regrettable" and said it was "called off before it had even ended".

Turkey's relations with Austria have long been strained, with Mr Kurz calling on the European Union to break off negotiations on Ankara joining the bloc.

Last week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attacked Mr Kurz, saying: "This immoral chancellor has a problem with us.

"He's throwing his weight around and making a scene."

Both Mr Kurz and the FPOe made immigration and integration major themes in their election campaigns last year.

In Friday's press conference Mr Kurz was keen to emphasise that the action was being taken under legislation to regulate Islamic associations that he brought in as a minister in the previous government.

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