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Austria targets mosques and imams in move Turkey calls 'racist'

'This is only the beginning' officials warn as they look to take on political Islam
A sign saying 'asylum is a human right' is held up at a rally in Austria (AFP)

The Austrian government is to close seven mosques and may eject up to 60 imams in an attempt to tackle political Islam and foreign funding of religious groups.

Turkey, which has deep ties to the Austrian Muslim community, condemned the move as racist.

The right-wing coalition government has promised to restrict the entry of migrants and refugees into the country and curb their benefits.

In 2015, Austria passed a "law on Islam", banning religious groups from being foreign-funded and ordering Muslim groups to have "a positive fundamental view towards state and society".

'This is just the beginning'

- Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache

"Political Islam's parallel societies and radicalising tendencies have no place in our country," said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who, in a previous job as minister in charge of integration, steered the Islam bill into law.

Standing next to him and two other cabinet members on Friday, far-right Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache told a news conference: "This is just the beginning."

Austria, a country of nearly nine million people, has roughly 600,000 Muslim inhabitants, most of whom are Turkish or have families of Turkish origin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman said the new policy was part of 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," Ibrahim Kalin tweeted.

The ministers at the news conference said up to 60 imams belonging to the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB), a Muslim group close to the Turkish government, could be expelled from the country or have visas denied on the grounds of receiving foreign funding.

A government handout put the number at 40, of whom 11 were under review and two had already received a negative ruling.

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

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

One organisation that runs a mosque in Vienna and is influenced by the Grey Wolves, a Turkish nationalist youth group, will be shut down for operating illegally, as will an Arab Muslim group that runs at least six mosques, the government said in a statement.