Merkel contradicts interior minister, saying ‘Islam belongs to Germany’
The first major controversy of Germany's new government broke out on Friday when Merkel was forced to contradict her new interior minister over the place of Islam in the country.
Germany’s newly inaugurated Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told Bild newspaper on Friday that he doesn’t believe the Islamic faith is part of German culture.
"Islam does not belong to Germany. Germany is characterized by Christianity. These aspects include shops being closed on Sundays, church holidays and rituals such as Easter, Pentecost and Christmas," said the Christian Social Union (CSU) Bavarian leader.
“The Muslims who live with us obviously belong to Germany,” he stated, adding that “this does not mean we give up our country-specific traditions and customs out of a misplaced consideration for others."
Seehofer recently vowed to speed up deportations of rejected asylum seekers in his new role, as his ministry is responsible for topics including migration. His comments highlight his intent to steer his CSU and the new government in a more conservative direction.
On Wednesday, almost six months after the election, Germany’s new government was finally confirmed under a coalition deal with Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), the CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD). Merkel was only narrowly elected by the Bundestag to a fourth term as Chancellor.
“Islam doesn’t belong to Germany” was a key theme of the Alternative for Germany’s (AfD) party platform in September’s general election. The far-right party is now Germany’s largest opposition party in the Bundestag.
Seehofer’s statement also contrasts with that of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who since 2015 has repeatedly said that Islam belongs to Germany. Seehofer has long been one of Merkel’s harshest critics with regards her immigration and refugee policies.
Merkel quickly contradicted her minister, saying that despite Germany's Judeo-Christian roots, more than four million Muslims now made their homes in the country.
"These Muslims are part of Germany and with them, their religion, Islam, is just as much a part of Germany," she told reporters after talks with Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven.
Despite Merkel's intervention, Seehofer's comments are likely to prove divisive in the fledgling right-left "grand coalition", which only came together when the reluctant Social Democrats (SPD) got on board after months of political paralysis.
Most of Germany's Muslims are descendants of Turkish so-called "guest workers" invited to Germany in the 1960s and 1970s.
The community grew again when Merkel in 2015 opened the border to more than one million asylum seekers from war-torn Muslim-majority countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The premier of Lower Saxony, Stephan Weil of the SPD, dismissed Seehofer's claim and accused him of sparking "a completely superfluous controversy" for Merkel.
The head of the Central Council of Muslims, Aiman Mazyek, said a minister who started work with such a "lack of solidarity" with minorities in Germany had "immediately disqualified" himself and acted "extremely irresponsibly".
Jürgen Trittin of the opposition Greens also sharply criticized Seehofer, saying exclusion would be "catastrophic" for integration efforts and only benefit the anti-immigration, anti-Islam AfD.
The AfD for its part welcomed the remarks, with party member Andre Poggenburg claiming that Seehofer had "quoted word-for-word from our platform".
Seehofer is taking the reins of an expanded ministry of interior and homeland affairs, now officially called the Interior, Construction and Heimat Ministry.
The German word Heimat - which roughly translates to home, heritage or homeland - is often used to describe a sense of familiarity or belonging. But it’s also a rather loaded political term in Germany, as seen in the controversial decision to create the Heimat Ministry within the Interior Ministry. It also brings up connotations with the Nazi era.
During his interview with Bild daily, Seehofer rejected criticism that the new German cabinet doesn’t include people with an immigrant background or people of colour.