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BERLIN (Reuters) - A leading conservative politician said on Thursday that Islam did not belong in Germany, fuelling tension at a conference on integrating Muslims that also debated a controversial Salafist campaign to hand out copies of the Koran across the country.
"Islam is not part of our tradition and identity in Germany and so does not belong in Germany," Volker Kauder, head of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives in parliament, told the Passauer Neue Presse.
"But Muslims do belong in Germany. As state citizens, of course, they enjoy their full rights," he added.
His remarks added to a highly charged nationwide debate about a campaign by an ultra-conservative Salafist Muslim group to hand out millions of free German translations of the Koran to non-Muslims.
The conference was one of a series hosted by the government to improve the integration of the four million Muslims living in Germany, about half of whom have German citizenship.
Many came from Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s and their hard work contributed to Germany's post-war economic miracle. Germany has a population of about 81 million.
While some people of Turkish origin have risen to prominent political and public positions, many others live in their own communities and studies show many youngsters struggle to learn German properly, limiting their chances of finding work.
In response to concern about radicalization and aware of the stimulus a well-qualified cohort of young Muslims could give to Europe's biggest economy, Merkel set up forums, or conferences, six years ago to improve integration.
Kauder's comments quickly drew fire.
"Volker Kauder is the last crusader for the conservatives. He is putting a bomb in the Islam conference," said senior opposition Social Democrat (SPD) lawmaker Thomas Oppermann.
"(He).. is denigrating and marginalizing all Muslims in Germany. That course is utterly wrong," he said.
Participants at Thursday's Islam conference, comprising delegates from the federal and state governments and Islamic groups, discussed the controversial distribution of the Koran by Salafist group "The True Religion" in Germany.
Critics, many from Merkel's traditionally Catholic party, say the campaign is ideological, aimed at recruiting supporters.
"Religion must not be allowed to be misused for ideological claims to power," said Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich.
"We (the conference) agree that Salafist extremism is not acceptable and does not fit in a free society as we have in Germany," he said, adding that Salafists did not enjoy the support of the majority of Muslims in Germany.
The group has already handed out at least 300,000 copies of the translated Koran at stands on the streets of German cities.
Germany's domestic intelligence agency has described Ibrahim Abu Nagie, who launched the campaign, as a prominent exponent of Salafism, which has its roots in Saudi Arabia, and German authorities view his website as a hub for radical Islamists.
Some Muslim groups have also criticized the handouts, though for a different reason. The chairman of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany has said the Koran is not a PR pamphlet for mass distribution.
The campaign poses a dilemma as any move to stop the distribution of the Koran - a perfectly legal activity - could be seen as anti-Islamic.
Kenan Kolat, the head of Turkish Communities in Germany, warned against hysteria. "If there is a glorification of violence or an infringement of free, democratic basic values, then there are police measures that can be used," said Kolat.
The Islam conference also discussed gender equality and condemned domestic violence and forced marriage.
Two years ago a painful row erupted over a bestseller by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin, who said Turkish and Arab immigrants sponged off the state and threatened German culture.
Soon after, Germany's then-President Christian Wulff won wide praise from Muslims by saying that Islam was part of Germany.
Reporting by Madeline Chambers, editing by Gareth Jones and Tim Pearce