VIENNA : A Muslim cleric of Chechen origin who was arrested in Austria this month has denied allegations that he recruited young Muslim men to fight in Syria, a magazine reported on Saturday.
Authorities in Graz took the suspect, 41, into custody after raiding buildings belonging to the city’s Taqwa Islamic community. The man, whose name has not been disclosed, is suspected of radicalising and encouraging several young Chechen refugees to join the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The authorities say four of them had died in combat.
His arrest is one of several in Europe in recent months amid fears that radical fighters returning from Syria could stage attacks on European soil. The man told Profil magazine he was innocent and that he had in fact warned Chechens against joining the war in Syria.
“I recall a sermon last summer in which I said Syrians had to solve their problems themselves because foreign groups could primarily cause harm. Chechens have nothing to seek in Syria,” he said. The cleric acknowledged knowing some of the young Chechen men among the fighters but said he was unaware of their plans to go off to war. “If they had asked me I would have told them they should be grateful Austria took them in so well and that they should stay here with their families,” he said in the interview released ahead of publication on Monday.
“I am a refugee myself, experienced the war in Chechnya and have children whom I would like to see grow up safe and sound in Austria. I would never encourage people to go off to war in Syria or anywhere else.” About 100 Austrians, home to roughly half a million Muslims or 6 percent of the total population, are estimated to be fighting Assad’s government.