Facing far-right challenge, minister says Islam doesn’t belong to Germany

New Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Islam does not belong to Germany and set out hardline immigration policies in an interview published on Friday, as he sought to see off rising far-right challengers.

Seehofer told Bild newspaper he would push through a “master plan for quicker deportations”, in his first major interview since he was sworn into office on Wednesday.

The minister – a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CSU Bavarian allies who are further to the right than her own Christian Democrats (CDU) – said he would also classify more states as ‘safe’ countries of origin, which would make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers.

The statements come after Merkel’s conservatives, and their coalition allies – the Social Democrats – lost ground to the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in elections last year.

Seehofer is particularly keen to show his party is tackling immigration ahead of Bavaria’s October regional election, when the AfD is expected to enter that state assembly.

“Islam does not belong to Germany,” Seehofer said, contradicting former German president Christian Wulff who fuelled a debate over immigration in 2010 by saying Islam was part of Germany.

In 2015 Merkel echoed Wulff’s words at a time when anti-immigration campaign group PEGIDA – or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West – was holding marches.

“LIVE WITH US”

“Of course the Muslims living here do belong to Germany,” Seehofer said before going on to say Germany should not give up its own traditions or customs, which had Christianity at their heart.

“My message is: Muslims need to live with us, not next to us or against us,” he said.

The government estimates between 4.4 and 4.7 million Muslims are living in Germany. Many of them have a Turkish background and many of the more than a million migrants who have arrived in the country from the Middle East and elsewhere after Merkel adopted an open-door policy in mid-2015 are also Muslims.

Andre Poggenburg, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony, said Seehofer was copying his party with a view to Bavaria’s October regional election: “Horst Seehofer has taken this message from our manifesto word for word,” he said.

The far-left Linke and Greens condemned Seehofer’s message, and the Social Democrats’ Natascha Kohnen told broadcaster n-tv: “Saying that incites people against each other at a time when we really don’t need that. What we really need is politicians who bring people together.”

In a coalition agreement, Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative bloc and the Social Democrats agreed they would manage and limit migration to Germany and Europe to avoid a re-run of the 2015 refugee crisis.

They also said they did not expect migration (excluding labour migration) to rise above the range of 180,000 to 220,000 per year.