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Germany

Imams take DITIB to court over sackings

The charges of two imams against DITIB seem to be fruitless. After the coup attempt last year they were called back to Turkey. DITIB is subject to political controversy due to its leanings towards the Turkish leadership.

Köln Moschee DITIB (Getty Images/AFP/M. Hitij)

The DITIB central mosque in Cologne - one of the biggest mosques in Germany

Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the two imams from the southern state of Baden-Württemberg were called back to their home country by a ministerial decree in August 2016. However, they've refused to comply with that request. Their charge now focuses on the question whether they are effectively employees of the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), a Turkish umbrella group engaged in religious, social and cultural activities. The Cologne-based labor court dealing with the case has serious doubts. Presiding Judge Christian Ehrich cited as a fundamental problem that neither a verbal nor a written labor contract was concluded between the two plaintiffs and the DITIB association of mosques. He adjourned his final verdict to a court session scheduled for early April.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs, Tuncay Karaman, submitted to the court various newsletters issued by DITIB's executive board, which supplied guidelines for imams preaching in Germany. But according to Ehrich, the paperwork did not provide clear labor law-related instructions as it was addressed to a multitude of recipients and not to the plaintiffs in person. With the required documentation missing, a formal employment relationship can't have existed. By and large, the presiding judge agreed with the reasoning of DITIB lawyer Mehmet Gunet, who said that responsibility for the ouster of the two imams lies with Diyanet, Turkey's religious authority. Diyanet had also paid the plaintiffs' salaries. That the two clerics worked in mosques which are owned by DITIB was the only interface between them and the umbrella organization, Ehrich said.

Missing explanation

Deutschland Ex-Imame DİTİB Prozess in Köln (DW/H. Topcu)

Tuncay Karaman: A political background to the recall of my clients exists

The case of the two imams arouses considerable public interest and has a significant ripple effect. Prior to their dismissal, the clerics served in DITIB mosques located in the southern German towns of Zell and Rheinfelden, respectively. They were told from one day to the next by the mosques' board of directors and assembly members to leave their community and Germany and return to Turkey, says their lawyer Karaman.

"My clients were told they were no longer welcome in their communities," Karaman told DW. But for both men - who live in Germany together with their families - a return to Turkey was out of the question, for fear of reprisals. For this reason, and with the general political situation in Turkey in mind, they had already submitted applications for asylum in Germany, added Karaman, who refused to comment on the reasons why his clients had been sacked: There was no official explanation, he told DW, "but a political background to the recall of my clients definitely exists."

Anonymity provides protection against reprisals

Both plaintiffs were absent during the court session. They don't want their names disclosed to the media either. Their life situation was difficult; both had not received any salaries since September. According to a court spokesperson, the Turkish government's recall affected other imams as well; however, only the two from Baden-Württemberg had gone to court over the matter.

Deutschland Ex-Imame DİTİB Prozess in Köln (DW/H. Topcu)

DITIB lawyer Mehmet Gunet: "Responsibility for the ouster lies with Diyanet"

On the sidelines of the court session, DITIB lawyer Gunet stressed that the two clerics had not been sacked by Diyanet, but that they had been recalled to their home country. The association of mosques played no role in this. "When DITIB asks Diyanet to provide an assembly with an imam and the imam fails to conduct himself properly, DITIB can ask for the imam to be removed," he added. "There's no contradiction here," Gunet told DW.

Usually, imams are sent by Turkey to Germany for a period of four years. If the charges were upheld in court, DITIB would, accordingly, have to hire all imams working in Germany, Gunet said. Confronted with the allegation that the recall of the plaintiffs was politically motivated, he replied that it was the pressing of charges that was politically motivated.

Under scrutiny after spying affair

The relationship between the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs and the Turkish religious authority has come under heavy fire. Several DITIB imams allegedly spied on congregation members on behalf of the Turkish government. Those affected included alleged followers of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in US exile for years. In Turkey, alleged followers of the Gulen movement are considered to be terrorists. In addition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds them responsible for staging the coup attempt in July last year. When the spying incidents came to light, the clerics in question returned to Turkey. DITIB is very active in Germany. It is the country's biggest Islamic umbrella organization and funds some 900 mosques.

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