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Özkan's crucifix ban call stirs uproar in Germany

BERLIN - Daily News with wires | 4/26/2010 12:00:00 AM |

The oath-taking ceremony of Germany’s first minister of Turkish heritage was clouded by a controversy over her call for a ban on Christian crucifixes in state schools.

The oath-taking ceremony of Germany’s first minister of Turkish heritage was clouded by a controversy over her call for a ban on Christian crucifixes in state schools.

Aygül Özkan, the 38-year-old daughter of a Turkish immigrant family, is expected to be sworn in as Social Affairs Minister in Lower-Saxony on Tuesday. However, she now finds herself subject to criticism even within her own party ranks after calling for a ban on religious symbols in schools.

“Christian symbols do not belong in state-run schools. Public schools should be neutral spaces, free of religious symbols, for the same reason that headscarves are inappropriate,” Özkan, previously a lawyer and a local government deputy in the northern German city of Hamburg, said in an interview with the news weekly Focus last week.

Members of the Christian Democratic Party, or CDU, have been quick to denounce the comments and some demanded she renounce her regional minister role, which she is due to assume Tuesday. Lower Saxony state Minister-President Christian Wulff, from the CDU, who won praise for appointing Özkan to his cabinet, brushed aside her comments as “personal opinion” and reaffirmed that his government welcomed crosses in schools.

“In Lower-Saxony, we value Christian symbols, especially crucifixes in schools, on behalf of a tolerant education based on Christian values, as intended by the regional government” the German press agency, DPA, quoted Wulff as saying.

[HH] Harsh criticism

However, the CDU’s sister party, the Christian Social Union, or CSU, General-Secretary Alexander Dobrindt criticized Wulff on Monday, and said he would “better have a talk with [Özkan] about Christian Democratic politics.”

Stefan Mueller, a member of parliament who represents the CDU and CSU on integration issues, used stronger language, calling the remarks “absurd and shocking.”

“Politicians who want to ban crosses in schools should think about whether they belong in a Christian party,” Mueller was quoted as saying in German media.

Meanwhile, the acting Social Democratic Party chair and long-time mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, saw in Özkan a symbolic appointment by the CDU, and said the conservative party was not quite “ready” for a minister with a Turkish migration background, reported the Die Welt Online.

Not towing the official line, she voiced support for an open-ended negotiation process for Turkey’s EU membership, whereas her ruling coalition party, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, distinctively prefers a different partnership of some sort.

Wowereit recommended Özkan rethink her party membership before being sworn into office, as “her policy stance has long been accepted in the SPD.”

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