Muslim group backs crosses in German schools

Berlin, Germany - A German Muslim group weighed into Germany's debate about crucifixes on Tuesday, saying it was fine for them to hang in German school classrooms because religion ought not to retreat from the public sphere.

The Central Council of Muslims, which supports the right of devout women to display their faith by wearing a headscarf, spoke out amid a storm over the views of a secular Muslim woman who was set to be sworn in Tuesday as a regional government minister.

"Religion needs to be visible in public space. That applies to all religions," Ayyub Axel Koehler, the German-born president of the Council, told the German Press Agency dpa in an interview in Cologne.

Aygul Ozkan, a lawyer whose father emigrated from Turkey before her birth, was scheduled to be sworn in as welfare minister of the state of Lower Saxony on Tuesday afternoon. She is the first Muslim to join a German cabinet. Germany has a federal and 16 state governments.

She triggered a storm with a news interview in which she said the cross should not hang on the walls of any public-school classroom, nor should girls or women teachers wear headscarves at school.

Ozkan apologized Monday, saying she accepted the policy of her party, Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which supports the presence of crosses.

A crucifix - a wooden cross with a statue of the dying Jesus Christ attached - hangs in most classrooms in the state of Bavaria.

The Central Council of Muslims is one of four national groups of mosques. It went public this month with criticism of the government for inviting too many secular Muslims to a national conference on relations between Islam and the state.

"We live in country that is thoroughly shaped by Christianity," Koehler said. "That is why religion ought to be visible here."

Speaking on an issue that has also made waves in France, Koehler said that by the same token, Muslim women should be free to wear scarves.

"If we ban religion from public spaces, then we are undermining the secular constitution. That is the nub of the issue," he said. "The state must behave neutrally towards religious communities, but is also duty bound to cooperate with them."

"The German constitution is an ideal one which I will passionately defend and which I think is now in danger from this removal of religion and symbols of religion from the public space," he added.

The premier of Lower Saxony state, Christian Wulff, renewed his support for Ozkan, and said her provocative remarks were a one-off.

"She has said so many clever things that we think she will be a great example," Wulff said on ARD public television, adding that the debate about school crucifixes had been settled.

Ozkan had "not fully taken into account" that, despite the official separation of church and the state, the institutions worked well together in Lower Saxony, Wulff said.

"This is why we welcome crucifixes in schools," the premier added.

In Germany, 5 per cent of the 80-million-strong population has a Muslim background, according to Berlin government data. The majority are of Turkish origin, following labour immigration encouraged until the 1970s.