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Turkish Islamic group says imams spied in Germany

Chase Winter
January 12, 2017

Germany's largest Islamic organization has admitted some of its preachers acted as informants for the Turkish government. The statement is likely to further strain German-Turkish relations.

Duisburg Moschee DITIB
Image: Imago/Reichwein

Germany's largest Turkish Islamic group admitted in an article published Thursday in the "Rheinische Post" newspaper that some of its preachers spied for the Turkish government.

In December, DITIB, a Turkish umbrella group engaged in religious, social and cultural activities, had issued a statement denying what it called "false media claims" that the Turkish government's Directorate of Religion, or Diyanet, ordered it to inform on suspected members of the Gulen movement. 

Ankara blames US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen and followers of his "Hizmet" movement for last year's failed July coup and has labeled the group a terrorist organization.  

However, in an apparent reversal, DITIB Secretary-General Bekir Alboga told the German paper that "a few" imams had provided information to Ankara on suspected Gulen followers.

Alboga said while DITIB had not directly received instructions from Diyanet, "some imams wrongly" informed on suspected Gulen followers in Germany. 

"We deeply regret this mishap and have spoken to Diyanet about this," Alboga said.

Ercan Karakoyun, a Hizmet spokesperson in Germany, said he found it upsetting that imams who should have been setting an example to members of their mosques were giving information to the Turkish government.

"Thousands of people from the Hizmet movement avoid mosques they contributed to for 30 years because of Erdogan's instrumentalization of DITIB," Karakoyun told DW. "Imams should actually have a de-escalating effect. Instead they are adding fuel to the fire."

Calls for DITIB independence

Responding to Thursday's development, the German commissioner for integration, Aydan Özoguz, called on DITIB to make itself independent of the Turkish government. She told the German dpa news agency that the organization was putting its reputation at risk.

Calling them the "outstretched arm" of the Turkish government, opposition Left party migration expert Sevim Dagdelen said the preachers who spied for Turkey should be kicked out of Germany. 

Volker Beck, a lawmaker for the opposition Greens, said in a statement that DITIB imams should be held to account for spying.

"DITIB's attempt to explain everything as a 'mishap' is hardly believable when taking into account the dependence of DITIB on the Diyanet in Ankara and the role of the Turkish embassy and consulate in directing the association and its structures," said Beck, a sharp critic of Turkey.  

He added that DITIB should provide German authorities the names of the imams who collected information or acted on the orders of the Turkish government. In December, Beck filed a complaint with the federal prosecutor's office on possible espionage at DITIB. 

The Turkish opposition newspaper "Cumhuriyet" and Germany's "Die Welt" were the first to report last year on the alleged instructions sent from Turkey to its foreign missions to inform on Gulen followers.

The claims caused an uproar in Germany, where sensitivities to domestic spying run deep due its Nazi past and the Stasi secret police in the former East Germany.

Could unrest spread to Germany?

Germany has about 3 million people of Turkish origin, nearly half of them with German citizenship. There is increasing concern that the political polarization and instability in Turkey could spill over into Germany.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the coup attempt to purge or arrest tens of thousands of alleged Gulen followers from positions in the police, the military, academia and the press, raising concerns over human rights and the state of democracy in the country. 

Diyanet falls directly under the Turkish presidency and is responsible for religious affairs throughout Turkey, including building mosques, writing Friday sermons and employing imams. It also manages the religious affairs of Turkish citizens outside of Turkey.

DITIB claims to be independent of the Turkish government, but its imams are trained in Ankara and classified as civil servants of the Turkish state.