Erdogan denounces Austria's decision to close mosques

Comments came the day after the Austrian government announced it could expel up to 60 Turkish-funded imams

epa06797072 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during an election campaign rally of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in Ankara, Turkey, 09 June 2018. Turkish President Erdogan announced on 18 April 2018 that Turkey will hold snap elections on 24 June 2018. The presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled to be held in November 2019, but government has decided to change the date following the recommendation of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahceli.  EPA/TUMAY BERKIN
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President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday strongly criticised Austria’s move to close mosques and expel Turkish-funded imams, criticising the decision as anti-Islamic and promising a response.

“These measures taken by the Austrian prime minister are, I fear, leading the world towards a war between the cross and the crescent,” Mr Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul.

His comments came the day after the Austrian government announced it could expel up to 60 Turkish-funded imams and their families, and would shut down seven mosques as part of a clampdown on “political Islam”.

The announcement triggered fury in Ankara.

Interior minister Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party, the junior partner in Austria’s coalition government, said the move concerned imams with alleged links to the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Associations organisation, a branch of Turkey’s religious affairs agency Diyanet.

Mr Kickl said his government suspects them of contravening a ban on foreign funding of religious office holders.

A Turkish presidential spokesman had on Friday described the Austrian move as “a reflection of the anti-Islam, racist and discriminatory populist wave in this country”.

However, other European far-right leaders welcomed the announcement.

Even Austria’s opposition parties were broadly supportive of Friday’s announcement, with the centre-left Social Democrats calling it “the first sensible thing this government has done”.

But the Green Party pointed out it could serve as a propaganda victory for the Turkish government.

Mr Erdogan, speaking on Saturday, said: “They say they’re going to kick our religious men out of Austria. Do you think we will not react if you do such a thing?

“That means we’re going to have to do something.”

About 360,000 people of Turkish origin live in Austria, including 117,000 Turkish nationals.

Relations between Ankara and Vienna have been strained since a failed coup in 2016 against Mr Erdogan that was followed by a wave of arrests.

His speech comes in the run-up to presidential and legislative elections on June 24 in which Mr Erdogan faces stiff opposition.

The Austrian government has banned Turkish officials from holding meetings in the country before the polls.