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EU Commission pulls funding for Turkish organization with links to religious cult

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The European Commission has suspended funding for a Turkish organization managed by the İsmailağa community, a Sunni sect that supports Turkish President Recep Erdoğan that was part of the Erasmus+ program, and is attempting to retrieve money that has already been paid out, the Cumhuriyet newspaper reported on Monday.

The daily had reported on Feb. 20 that the Yavuz Sultan Selim Youth Association, led by Abdülhalik Ustaosmanoğlu, grandson of late İsmailağa community leader Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu, received a grant of €31,455 under the European Commission’s “Erasmus+Youth Program.”

The money was granted “for Erasmus+ youth participation activities to enable young people to experience cultural and social exchanges and actions.” The project consisted of workshops for young women and men on online discrimination against Muslims.

The association, which officially states that it “fights against Islamophobia,” was criticized for the grant by Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, a popular preacher from İsmailağa who goes by the name “Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca.”

“It is not appropriate for an association or foundation to accept aid and donations from foreign states because those who receive money from them today will take orders tomorrow,” Ünlü said.

The grant also received reactions in Europe, prompting MEPs from Identity and Democracy, a right-wing to far-right political group in the European Parliament, to ask the commission how it could justify financially supporting the association in a written question on April 4.

Vice President of the Commission Margaritis Schinas effectively admitted it could not.

“The Commission attaches importance to ensuring that beneficiaries of EU funds respect the Union’s values as enshrined in the Treaty on European Union and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,” he noted.

Schinas further stated that a number of recent cases have highlighted the risk of national and/or European funding “falling into the wrong hands.”

Saying that the Turkish National Agency selected the project run by the association according to the procedures of the Erasmus+ program and that the activities ended on May 31, 2023, he added, “The Commission has already suspended payment to this project and has launched procedures for the recovery of funds already disbursed.”

The Center for European Union Education and Youth Programs (Turkish National Agency) is an institution established in 2003 with administrative and financial autonomy, becoming a full member of the EU Education and Youth Programs in 2004 and currently overseeing the Erasmus+ Program.

İsmailağa was one of the organizations that called for Turkey’s withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s human rights treaty aimed at combatting violence against women and domestic violence.

Despite opposition from the international community and women’s rights groups, Turkish President Erdoğan issued a decree in March 2021 that pulled the country out of the international treaty, which requires governments to adopt legislation prosecuting perpetrators of domestic violence and similar abuse as well as marital rape and female genital mutilation.

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