CAIRO - German Chancellor Angela Merkel waded in a new controversy on Saturday, April 6, rejecting the idea of separate sport classes for Muslim girls and boys as sending a wrong signal on the country's integration, The Local newspaper reported.
Integration is very important to the chancellor, Georg Streiter, a government spokesman, told Rheinische Post newspaper.
People being separated from one another is the opposite of integration, he told the.
The subject of how to treat Muslim school children when it comes to sport instruction is becoming an election topic.
The issue was raised when Peer SteinbrÃ¼ck, Merkel's Social Democratic Party opponent in the September national vote, waded into what in the past has been a hornet's nest of controversy in Germany.
In comments given earlier this week, he expressed support for physical education classes in German schools to be divided by gender.
"If schools are able to do it, then they should," SteinbrÃ¼ck said in response to a question from the audience during a campaign appearance in Berlin, Der Spiegel reported.
A Reuters reporter noted that the comment was greeted with silence.
SteinbrÃ¼ck then added that the step should be taken "out of consideration for religious convictions."
Germany is believed to be home to nearly 4 million Muslims, including 220,000 in Berlin alone.
The country is Europe's second-biggest Muslim population after France, and Islam comes third in Germany after Protestant and Catholic Christianity.
Germans have grown hostile to the Muslim presence recently, with a heated debate on the Muslim immigration into the country.
A recent poll by the Munster University found that Germans view Muslims more negatively than their European neighbors.
In August 2011, Germany's daily Der Spiegel had warned that the country is becoming intolerant towards its Muslim minority.
Supporting Merkel's attitude, Barbara John, formerly in charge of integration issues for the city-state of Berlin, joined the debade.
Children and parents have to get used to the fact that genders here grow up together and live with the same rights," she told the newspaper Bild.
She was seconded by Serkan TÃ¶ren, a member of the federal parliament with the Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partner.
TÃ¶ren, himself from Turkey, said that "dividing boys and girls is akin to dividing society.
Splitting classes by gender is also the wrong signal to send when it comes to integrating Muslims in Germany, he added.
Even the Greens, ostensibly the SPD's allies in the campaign, have distanced themselves when Memet Kilic, a member of parliament and the Green's expert on integration issues, said that current rules governing physical education classes should not be changed.
Facing growing opposition, SteinbrÃ¼ck defended his statements while on a trip to Paris, saying he was not going to go back on what he said.
Many Muslim parents solve the problem of sport instruction by calling their children in sick, he told the Focus magazine.
That also cannot be the solution.
SPD General Secretary Andrea Nahles has also supported SteinbrÃ¼ck, noting that in her state of Rhineland-Pfalz the separation of the sexes for sport instruction has long been the norm and takes place without a problem if the schools can organizationally deal with it and they want that.