Proposed German law could push out Turkish imams

Germany is looking to make German language skills a requirement for foreign Muslim clerics, a move that could jeopardise the positions of hundreds of Turkish imams in the country.

Clerics supporting Germany’s Muslim migrants “have a role model and adviser function that is crucial in terms of promoting the peaceful co-existence of different cultures and religions,” a German Interior Ministry spokesman said on Sunday, Turkish pro-government news outlet Daily Sabah reported. Clerics who speak German and are familiar with German culture will also help promote integration, the spokesman said.

German politicians have urged the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), which runs some 900 mainly Turkish mosques in Germany, to cut ties with Ankara. DITIB, previously a branch of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), is still widely seen as run by Turkey’s government.

“An Islamic institution which is only loyal to Ankara cannot be part of Germany,” said Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) spokesman Christoph de Vries, explaining that Turkey trains and pays the salaries of hundreds of Turkish imams in Germany.

Indeed, the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia, which is home to DITIB's headquarters, in Cologne, discovered in January that 80 percent of its prison imams were Turkish civil servants, with salaries paid by Ankara. Turkey refused to allow the 97 imams to be interviewed as part of a security check and they were dismissed.

Germany is also considering a mosque tax, in an effort to curb foreign influence on the country’s five million Muslims, some three million of whom are of Turkish origin.

Pro-government columnists in Turkey have argued that it is the job of Turkish clerics in Germany to be on the lookout for possible supporters of the Gülen movement, which Ankara sees as organising the failed 2016 coup.  

In 2017, DITIB acknowledged that several of its imams in Germany had been doing just that, effectively spying for the Turkish state. The German government stopped funding DITIB projects and its intelligence agency is considering putting DITIB under official surveillance.

The German language entry requirement has been repeatedly proposed, and vetoed by the government's junior partners, the centre-left Social Democrats, according to Daily Sabah. CDU lawmaker Carsten Linnemann has said that some 2,000 imams in Germany speak no or little German.

Merkel's government has been pushing for imams preaching in Germany to also be educated in the country. Many of the country's imams were educated in Turkey or Middle Eastern countries.