Feb 17, 5:58 AM EST

Turkey's top cleric denounces raids on 4 imams in Germany


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ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkey's top religious official suggested on Friday that the German authorities' raids on the apartments of four Islamic clerics were political moves fueled by "Islamophobia" ahead of elections in the country.

Mehmet Gormez, the chief of the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, also rejected accusations that the clerics were engaged in spying or any other illegal activity. He acknowledged, however, that some had "exceeded their authorities" and were called back to Turkey, without offering details.

The four clerics' homes were raided on Wednesday over suspicions that they had spied on opponents of the Turkish government.

The German federal prosecutors' office said the raids 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 union of Turkish-Islamic cultural organizations in Germany, or DITIB, are suspected of passing the information on to the Turkish consulate in Cologne.

"None of our religious employees was engaged in any activity that could be assessed as prying, or as espionage, or as interfering in the privacy (of others)," Gormez told reporters.

Gormez said Turkish authorities had accepted that six imams had "exceeded their authorities" and were called back to Turkey in order not to harm relations with Germany. He blamed "internal" political concerns for the raids, which he said were conducted despite the fact that the imams had returned to Turkey.

"There are elections coming in Europe," Gormez said. "It is unacceptable that in the election (period) there is a race for Islamophobia-based hatred."

Gormez, the top Turkish Islamic cleric, said the raids had defamed DITIB and "inflicted a moral and conscientious wound on not only over three million Turks who have made Germany their home but also on more than five million Muslims in the country."

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.

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