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Turkey recalls clerics following Germany spy case

German police this week raided the homes of four Turkish Muslim clerics suspected of spying for President Erdogan's government
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and German Chancellor Angela Merkel give a press conference after their bilateral talks in Ankara on 2 February, 2017 (AFP)

Turkey's religious affairs agency said on Friday that it had recalled six clerics from Germany for exceeding their authority but lashed out at German police for raiding the homes of preachers suspected of spying for Ankara.

The Diyanet agency's chief Mehmet Görmez vehemently denied there had been any wrongdoing by the clerics, saying his organisation was the target of a defamation campaign.

German police this week raided the homes of four Turkish Muslim clerics suspected of spying for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government on the movement of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara blames for a coup bid last year.

The imams, who were not named, are accused of reporting to Diyanet on Turkish followers of Gulen, through the Turkish consulate in Cologne.

"The clerics did not engage in any illegal act," Görmez told reporters in Ankara, adding that information had been shared with Germany.

But he said: "Six clerics who were evaluated to have exceeded their authority were sent back to their posts in Turkey."

This was "to maintain the mutual trust between two countries and as a gesture of goodwill", Görmez added. 

He emphasised that they had never participated "in any act of intelligence-gathering or espionage" but confirmed that the six recalled included the four clerics whose homes were raided.

Görmez indicated that they had already been recalled before the raids took place, slamming the police actions as subject to "political and media pressure".

He expressed hope that German officials would help in "sensibly ending this unreasonable and pointless process".

Görmez gave no details on how the recalled clerics had exceeded their authority.

German police made no arrests in the raids but confiscated written material and data storage devices.

German media said imams belong to Ditib, an organisation controlled by Ankara that manages some 900 mosques or religious communities in Germany. Diyanet sends clerics to work in its mosques.

The range of its influence has on occasion caused controversy in Germany, as with similar organisations in the Netherlands and Austria.

The raids came at a time of high tension between Ankara and Berlin with Chancellor Angela Merkel's government repeatedly criticising the scale of the crackdown in the wake of the 15 July failed coup attempt.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is heading to Germany at the weekend and is expected to meet Merkel. 

Merkel said on Thursday she was surprised to find out almost two years ago that the BND, Germany's foreign intelligence service, was spying on allied countries, including Turkey.

The German chancellor made her comments at a parliamentary inquiry into surveillance carried out by the US National Security Agency in Germany, including her own phone.

Merkel said at the time that "spying among friends is not at all acceptable".

However, yesterday she said: "I assumed that the BND does not engage in such activities… It's a waste of effort and energy.”

A report by Der Spiegel in 2014 uncovered that the BND had been spying on Turkey for years and identified the allied country as a top surveillance target.

Turkey summoned the German ambassador in response and Ankara’s foreign ministry said the report was "absolutely unacceptable" if true.