Austria calls for European register of Muslim imams

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Since the start of 2021, Austria has required the registration of all imams in the country. Austria plans to shut seven mosques and expel dozens of imams in what politicians have described as a crackdown on “political Islam”.

The country’s coalition government, formed of conservative and far-right figures, said the measures were “just the beginning” of a push against radical Islam and foreign funding of religious groups.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said authorities would shut what was described as a “hardline, Turkish nationalist mosque” in Vienna and also dissolve a group called the Arab Religious Community.

 “Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalizing tendencies have no place in our country,” said Mr Kurz, who rose to power last year after his People’s Party formed a coalition with the anti-migrant Freedom Party.

The measures are being carried out under the premise of Austria’s “law on Islam” – legislation introduced in 2015 banning the foreign funding of religious groups.

Action follows controversy in April when photographs emerged of children dressed in military fatigues taking part in a re-enactment of the First World War battle of Gallipoli at a Vienna mosque.

Austria, a country of close to nine million people, is home to a 600,000-strong Muslim community, most of whom were either born in Turkey or are of Turkish decent.

Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, described the new policy as an “Islamophobic, racist and discriminatory wave” in Austria.

“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 tweeted.

Austrian authorities will review the visas of around 40 imams employed by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), a group with close ties to the Turkish government.

The government also revealed it had already revoked visas from two imams, while five more had been refused first-time permits.

ATIB spokesman Yasar Ersoy acknowledged that its imams were paid by Diyanet, the Turkish state religious authority, but said the organization was trying to change that.

“We are currently working on having imams be paid from funds within the country,” he told ORF radio.

The government plans to shut down one organization that runs a mosque in Vienna and is influenced by Turkish nationalist youth group, the “Grey Wolves”, as well as an Arab Muslim group that runs at least six mosques.

The registration of Imams, which the Islamic Religious Community in Austria (IGGÖ) has been tasked with maintaining, is one of a host of measures Austria has adopted in the wake of the Vienna attack.

The government has expanded a ban on symbols associated with extremist organizations to include the far-right nationalist Austrian Identitarian Movement as well as Islamist groups.

Criminal law has been changed to include a “religiously motivated extremist association” offense. This includes anyone who threatens “democratic constitutional order … with a social and state order based exclusively on religion in an unlawful manner.”

Release conferences have been created to be held before the conditional release of imprisoned terrorism offenders. The sessions are intended to provide courts with the necessary information so they can impose appropriate conditions on released offenders.

A registry of terrorism offenders has been established. The list is designed to impose a lifelong ban on weapons purchases and prevent previous offenders from being employed in security-critical areas.

The Austrian government did stop short of an explicit ban on “political Islam,” or religiously motivated political extremism.

Kurz’s administration also wants to revoke the Austrian passports of convicted terrorists if they possess other citizenships, but a draft law to that end is not expected until later this year.

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