BERLIN (AP) — German authorities on Wednesday raided the apartments of four Islamic clerics suspected of spying on opponents of the Turkish government, accusing them of hiding behind religion to conduct espionage on behalf of Ankara.
The federal prosecutors' office said the morning raids in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rheinland-Palatinate were carried out to collect evidence, and no arrests were made. The unidentified targets are suspected of spying on supporters of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, who is accused by the Turkish government of orchestrating a July 15 coup.
Prosecutors say the four men affiliated with the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs, the union of Turkish-Islamic cultural organizations in Germany, are suspected of passing the information on to the Turkish consulate in Cologne.
The union, known by its Turkish acronym DITIB, sought to distance itself from the raids. The group posted a statement on its website Wednesday evening saying the investigations were not directed against the organization, its employees or its mosques.
It pointed out that only private apartments were searched, but said it would support federal prosecutors in their work and help clear up the allegations.
"The raids of private apartments of Muslim clerics have led to anger within the Muslim community," DITIB wrote. "Especially, since DITIB is intensively helping clarify the accusations since they first surfaced."
Last week, when an official of Germany's domestic intelligence agency said that 13 imams affiliated with DITIB had sent the names of alleged supporters of Gulen to the Turkish government's Office for Religious Affairs, Diyanet, the union said it was not involved and that Diyanet supervised imams directly.
Following the raids, Justice Minister Heiko Maas said the government expects "DITIB to promptly and completely explain the allegations."
"Whoever uses Islam as a cover for espionage cannot rely (for protection) on the freedom of religion," he said. "If the suspicion that some DITIB imams were spying is confirmed, the organization must be seen, at least in parts, as a long arm of the Turkish government."
Earlier this week, an Austrian lawmaker raised concerns that Turkish diplomatic offices around the world were gathering information to try to undermine organizations loyal to Gulen, who denies involvement in the coup.
Austrian Greens Parliamentarian Peter Pilz said memos from the Turkish Embassy in Vienna and the Turkish Consulate in Salzburg showed ATIB, the Austrian equivalent to DITIB, sending in reports on Gulen-backed organizations, with the information then forwarded to Ankara.
Pilz spoke of a "global spying network," saying his team was working on publishing similar documents from 30 other countries in Europe, Africa and Asia.
The matter came up when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Ankara at the beginning of February, and Merkel said that "confusion must not arise here."
"If we have problems, for example with the Gulen movement, and Turkey has information about that, then our security authorities must discuss that with each other," she said after meeting Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.
She stressed that she wants people of Turkish origin in Germany "to be able to have access to their imams. So confusion or this feeling that people here are being observed or spied on must be dispelled from the start."