Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blasted Austria's decision to close mosques and expel Turkish-backed Imams as anti-Islamic and promised a response, saying the measures announced by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz could lead to a "war between the cross and the crescent." Erdogan's comments came a day after the Austrian government said it would expel up to 60 Turkish-funded imams and shut down seven mosques as part of a crackdown on "political Islam", leading to widespread fury in Ankara.
"These measures taken by the Austrian prime minister are, I fear, leading the world towards a war between the cross and the crescent," Erdogan said in a speech in Istanbul, suggesting that a return of the Ottoman Empire is among the many ambitious "to do" items in Erdogan's calendar: after all that was the last time the "crescent" decided to take on the "cross", and coincidentally, the Turkish ambitions reached as far as Vienna before the Hapsburgs crushed the Ottoman ascent.
Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in Austria's coalition government, said the move concerned imams with alleged links to the Turkish-Islamic Cultural Association - or ATIB - a branch of Turkey's religious affairs agency, Diyanet. Kickl said he suspects the organization of violating a ban on the foreign funding of religious organizations. A spokesman for Turkey's president said on Friday that the decision was "a reflection of the anti-Islam, racist and discriminatory populist wave in this country." At the time, Kurz claimed the decision was meant to fight radicalization and "parallel societies".
Meanwhile, other conservative European leaders praised the move, including France's Marine Le Pen and Italy's Matteo Salvini. However, even Austria's opposition parties supported the decision, with the center-left Social Democrats calling it "the first sensible thing this government has done." Though Austria's Green Party argued that it could serve as propaganda for Turkey's government.
Speaking Saturday, Erdogan added that "they say they're going to kick our religious men out of Austria. Do you think we will not react if you do such a thing?" "That means we're going to have to do something," without specifying exactly what form Turkey's retaliation might take.
Roughly 336,000 people of Turkish origin live in Austria, including about 117,000 Turkish nationals. Relations between Austria and Turkey have been strained since the famous 2016 fake coup attempt against Erdogan.
Erdogan's tough words come ahead of a presidential and legislative election in Turkey set for June 24, with the Turkish economy on the rocks, inflation soaring, and the lira crashing.
The Austrian government has banned Turkish officials from meeting in Austria ahead of the vote.