German politicians skeptical of DİTİB’s claim of refocus on religious services

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German politicians have expressed skepticism over a campaign launched by the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DİTİB) — the largest Islamic umbrella group in Germany and recently accused of being a Trojan horse for the Turkish government following an espionage scandal — to reintroduce itself to the German public as a localized religious community focused on education, Deutsche Welle Turkish service reported on Saturday.

After electing a new board of directors on Jan. 4, DİTİB held a press conference on Wednesday in Cologne to introduce members of the new management team as well as address concerns increasingly voiced by German public opinion after a 2017 espionage scandal that exposed DİTİB to federal investigation.

Kazım Türkmen, the new chairman of the board, stressed during the briefing that DİTİB was an institution established in line with German law and its charter was approved by the German courts.

“DİTİB belongs to Germany,” Türkmen claimed, adding that their new beginning would mean focusing on their primary duty and leaving behind polemics.

In response, some German politicians expressed dissatisfaction and called on DİTİB to rid itself of Ankara’s political influence.

Christoph de Vries, a spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), requested a harsher stance against DİTİB, suggesting that it still remains an offshoot of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) as it continues to depend on Ankara for its personnel and organizational and financial affairs.

De Vries further underlined that an Islamic organization that is only loyal to the Turkish government cannot be a part of Germany.

Armin Laschet, the minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), called on DİTİB to become independent from Ankara’s political influence. Speaking to the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger newspaper, Laschet ruled out for the time being any institutional cooperation between the state of NRW and DİTİB unless the latter takes concrete steps.

Cem Özdemir, former co-chair of the Greens, argued in favor of a new beginning that would allow DİTİB to disassociate itself from Ankara in terms of content and personnel. Özdemir cautioned that if DİTİB acts otherwise, he cannot see a way in which it makes room for itself among German religious communities or in German schools.

Sevim Dağdelen, a member of the Left Party, said DİTİB is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long arm reaching into Germany and that the introduction of the new board did nothing but consolidate the situation, adding, “We cannot talk of a new beginning when three out of seven members of the board of directors are officers from the Diyanet in Ankara.”

A spokesperson for the Federal Ministry of Interior confined himself to reaffirming their critical view of the fact that DİTİB depends on the Diyanet for its structural, financial and personnel affairs, adding that they were committed to “keep up the dialogue.”

“DİTİB is trying to repaint the façade, but it didn’t even bring any paint with it,” said Volker Beck, a theologian from the University of Bochum.

In 2017 DİTİB was the subject of a federal investigation in Germany after it was revealed that 19 of their imams, acting upon instructions from the Turkish government, were passing intelligence to Ankara on members of the Gülen movement living in Germany.

The Gülen movement, inspired by US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, is accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating a 2016 failed coup in Turkey, a claim strongly denied by Gülen.

Ahmet Dilek, who worked at Turkey’s Consulate General in Cologne as a religious attaché between 2014 and 2017 and allegedly played an active role in the events surrounding the espionage scandal, continues to serve on DİTİB’s new board of directors.

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