World News

German president welcomes Islam during unity speech

BERLIN (Reuters) - German President Christian Wulff said Sunday that Islam had a place in Germany, during a speech celebrating two decades of reunification.

German President Christian Wulff makes an official speech during celebrations marking the country's 20th anniversary of reunification, at the Arena in Bremen October 3, 2010. REUTERS/Morris Mac Matzen

The president, who holds a largely ceremonial position but is considered a moral authority for the nation, used the televised ceremony to wade into a debate over immigrant integration that has captivated public attention for weeks.

“First and foremost, we need adopt a clear stance: an understanding that for Germany, belonging is not restricted to a passport, a family history, or a religion,” he told an audience in the northern city of Bremen.

“Christianity doubtless belongs in Germany. Judaism belongs doubtless in Germany. That is our Judeo-Christian history. But by now, Islam also belongs in Germany,” he added.

Wulff’s speech was part of nationwide festivities marking reunification in 1990, after Germany spent a half-century divided into two countries following defeat in World War Two.

His comments came after a sustained public discussion on the role of immigrants, most of whom were seen until a decade ago as “guest workers” who would eventually return to other countries.

The issue had been simmering for years as blood-based citizenship laws gave little recognition to the country’s newer residents, 4 million of whom are Muslim.

Positions hardened however last summer after an outspoken board member of Germany’s central bank accused Muslim immigrants of sponging off the welfare state, refusing to integrate and lowering the nation’s intelligence.

After publishing his ideas in a book that went on to be a bestseller, Thilo Sarrazin was forced out of his job at the Bundesbank, leaving Germany split over his views and how he was handled by the political establishment.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who nominated Wulff for the presidency, came under fire for her handling of the row from both conservative elements of her own Christian Democrat (CDU) party and far-right groups.

Since then, she has tried to accommodate both ends of the debate, saying police should not have to fear entering immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, but also that “mosques will be a somewhat larger part of our cityscape than before.”