BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's government moved on Wednesday to outlaw forced marriages against a backdrop of a growing debate about immigration and integration in the country that is home to some four million Muslims.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said forced marriages would be treated as a criminal offence with a jail term of up to five years if the law is passed by parliament. Forced marriages are currently treated as a form of coercion.
"Forced marriage is a problem in Germany and we must take it seriously," de Maiziere said. He added it would be wrong to tolerate forced marriage and merely consider it a tradition belonging to other cultures.
The law would give affected parties more time to annul forced marriages.
There have been several high profile cases in Germany of forced marriages in Germany's Turkish community. But the government said the problem is not limited to Islamic circles.
The government also revealed plans to put tougher demands on immigrants to better integrate them into German society.
Authorities will, for example, have to check whether immigrants have taken compulsory "integration courses" before extending their residency permits. Those who fail to take the courses may find their applications are rejected.
The proposals come after weeks of heated debate about integration in Germany -- a sensitive issue in the country that saw minorities persecuted under Hitler and now tries to present itself as a tolerant, liberal society as a result.
The debate started when German central banker Thilo Sarrazin made controversial remarks about the failure of many Muslim immigrants to integrate in a book -- "Deutschland schafft sich ab" (German does away with itself).
President Christian Wulff encouraged Germans to accept that "Islam also belongs in Germany," which also stirred the debate.
Merkel said earlier this month that multiculturalism had "utterly failed" in Germany. She told Muslims they must obey the constitution rather than Sharia law if they wanted to live in Germany.
Writing by Michelle Martin; editing by Michael Roddy