BERLIN (Reuters) - German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said on Friday he would not change his views on Islam, striking a defiant note just two days after Chancellor Angela Merkel put him down for challenging the place of the religion in Germany.
Merkel appointed Seehofer, who leads her conservative Bavarian allies, to her cabinet as interior minister under a coalition deal struck earlier this month. Barely a week into the job, he has already strained the fragile ‘grand coalition’.
“I will not change my politics a jot,” Seehofer told Der Spiegel magazine, which said he was deeply annoyed by Merkel contradicting him.
A week ago, Seehofer told the Bild daily that “Islam does not belong” in Germany, prompting Merkel to say on Wednesday during her first government statement to parliament since starting her fourth term in office: “Islam has become part of Germany.”
Germany is home to some four million Muslims, including many Turks who have lived there for decades as well as migrants and asylum seekers who arrived in the past few years, many fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Seehofer, who leads the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has long been a thorn in the chancellor’s side - especially over immigration and the role of migrants in Germany.
But whereas he was not in the last government, he now leads the powerful interior ministry, restyled to include a ‘homeland’ portfolio - a ploy widely seen as being aimed at winning back voters lost to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD).
Seehofer is concerned that his CSU will lose ground to the AfD in a regional election in October in Bavaria, where refugees flooded across the border during Europe’s 2015 migrant crisis.
The left-leaning Social Democrats, who are partners with the CDU and CSU in the ruling coalition, have accused him of using his new ministerial post to campaign for the Bavarian election.
In his first speech to parliament as interior minister, Seehofer on Friday promised a zero-tolerance approach both to borders being overrun and to hate crimes committed against people of other beliefs.
Seehofer also said that militant Islamists pose a threat to national security and said there should be border controls between neighboring EU states so long as the European Union’s external borders are not controlled effectively.
Seehofer, who during the 2015 refugee crisis repeatedly criticized Merkel’s “open-door” policy for asylum seekers, reaffirmed his plans to curb migration and facilitate deportations of those who have no right to stay.
Reporting By Riham Alkousaa; Editing by Gareth Jones