Turkish far-right Erdogan greetings cause concern in Germany

The Turkish president's opening of Germany's largest mosque and use of hand gestures associated with extremists have led to German politicians' concerns about the role of the DITIB association.

Politicians in Germany expressed concern Monday about the use of Turkish ultra-nationalist symbols during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent state visit.

Erdogan supporters welcomed him with the Grey Wolves (Bozkurt) hand sign when he arrived in Cologne to open Germany's largest mosque run by DITIB, a Turkish-Germanic Islamic organization funded by Ankara.

North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) Integration Minister Serap Güler told Deutschlandfunk that anyone who had seen the disturbing images of right-wing extremists in Chemnitz could not remain silent, even if the extremists were in a minority.

DITIB had not used the opening of the mosque to demonstrate integration, she added, insisting that the association had to decide if it wanted to operate as a political organization or occupy itself with the religious concerns of local Muslims.

Just as worrying, Güler said, was the four-fingered "Rabia" greeting of the Muslim Brotherhood, which Erdogan used upon arrival in Berlin.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Inspired by a flower bud

The building was designed with glass walls and a staircase accessible from the street, symbolizing openness to people of all religions. It features two 55-meter (60-yard) minarets and a dome of glass and concrete which appears to open like a flower bud.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Ehrenfeld's mix of cultures

The mosque is located in Cologne's Ehrenfeld district, a formerly a working-class quarter. Ehrenfeld suffered a rise in unemployment and poverty when factories closed in the 1970s. Some time later, however, low rent prices lured in artists, galleries and theaters, ultimately gentrifying the area. Today, 35 percent of locals there have an immigrant background.

Modell of the Mosque in a presentation

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Impressive plans

The construction was funded by hundreds of Muslim associations, but also bank loans and donations from the Turkish government's religious affairs authority in Germany, DITIB. Cologne city council approved the plans in 2008, despite Chancellor Angela Merkel's party, the conservative Christian Democrats, voting against it.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Architect drops out after row with Turkish association

Architect Paul Böhm, who specializes in building churches, won the contract in 2005. He saw the building as an act of integration. He later fell out with the new leadership of DITIB and stopped working on the project in 2011.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Doors opened in 2017

The mosque first opened for prayer during Ramadan in 2017, but was only officially opened by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his visit to Germany in September 2018.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Room for 1,200 worshippers

Inside the mosque, there's a prayer area which takes up both the ground and the upper floor, with the two sections connected by a well in the center of the building's glass front. The compound houses an Islamic library. There are also shops and sports facilities intended to foster interactions among people of different faiths.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

New skyline

Some residents were shocked by the sheer size of the construction when the plans were first presented, especially the height of the minarets, and feared a change in the skyline of their "Christian city." Then-Cardinal Joachim Meisner, the archbishop of Cologne, admitted to having "an uneasy feeling" about the project.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Right-wing protesters oppose the mosque

Right-wing politicians picked up on the sentiment and launched a heated debate about the integration of Muslims in Germany. Author Ralph Giordano said the mosque would be "an expression of the creeping Islamization" in the country.

Cologne's central mosque: A troubled symbol of unity

Imams or spies?

In 2017, German authorities launched an investigation into the activities of DITIB imams, who are schooled in Turkey and paid by the Turkish state, as well as other people working in the Cologne complex. Mosque employees were suspected of spying against Turks living in Germany on behalf of the Turkish goverment.

The Grey Wolves is a Turkish ultranationalist group, and has been described as the armed wing of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) whose members have played a significant role in voting Erdogan into power in Turkey, especially since the failed 2016 coup.

The MHP took 11 percent of the poll in the last elections in Turkey and their members and supporters have gained jobs in the bureaucracy, police and army after the purges of suspected anti-Erdogan elements. Some Grey Wolves and other "ulkuculer" nationalists are accused of connections to criminal gangs and the underworld.

Erdogan waving to supporters in Berlin

German political concerns

The Social Democratic Party (SPD)'s parliamentary spokesman for internal affairs, Burkhard Lischka, told the Welt newspaper on Monday there were "significant indications that DITIB was compliant in spying on Turkish dissidents in our country." He called for an investigation which could include surveillance of the association by German authorities.

Lischka's CDU counterpart, Mathias Middelberg, told the same newspaper that if DITIB was not a religious organization but the "political arm of an autocratic state president, spying on Erdogan's opponents and critics, it can hardly also be our partner."

Neither Cologne's Mayor Henriette Reker or NRW State Premier Armin Laschet were at the opening ceremony of the mosque on Saturday, which was attended by 1,100 people.

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Dialogue or spying

Reker told the Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger newspaper "I want to tell the DITIB very clearly, that they must rebuild a stable connection to the city community," saying she hoped a new dialogue could be started.

Federal Integration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz expressed similar sentiments as she expressed hopes the DITIB would change its course: "If religious associations want to become part of Germany, they must have their own structures in Germany and can not remain part of Turkey."

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