January 10, 2008 / 1:31 PM / 10 years ago

Germany boosts integration the festive way

BERLIN (Reuters) - Carnival revelers in the Black Forest are trying to help Turks integrate better into mainstream German society by encouraging immigrant children to join the traditional festivities just before Lent.

Their efforts come in the midst of a political row over integration sparked by a senior figure in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party who has homed in on crime committed by foreign juveniles in his campaign for re-election.

Members of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have angered immigrant groups by saying Germany has too many young foreign offenders and that immigrants must adopt German values. Critics say the campaign has stirred up xenophobia.

The organizers of carnival, an annual highpoint in Germany’s Catholic areas, have seized on the problem and are actively looking for Turks, and other minorities, to participate in their five-day-long festive rituals which go back to the Middle Ages.

“It’s very important to get children with migrant backgrounds, including Muslims, involved both to preserve our customs and to build a proper community,” said Roland Wehrle, who helps run carnival in the south-western Black Forest area.

Wehrle, President of a carnival “Guild of Fools” in Swabia, says he visits schools to explain the festival -- Germany’s answer to Brazil’s Rio Carnival -- which this year takes place in the first week of February.

In Swabia, revelers spend weeks diligently practicing dances and songs for street processions and scrubbing up their elaborate devils, witches and fools’ costumes and wooden masks, some of which date back to the 17th century.

Many Turks, Germany’s biggest minority, live parallel lives to Germans and form their own Turkish-speaking communities and Wehrle laments the scant involvement of Turks in carnival.

“We have only a handful of Turks involved now but we want that to change and there is plenty of interest among children, even if some parents are less keen,” he told Reuters.

Up to 10 million people join carnival -- known as the “fifth season” -- each year, bringing the Rhineland and the south-western part of Germany, to a standstill.

Each area has its own rituals but for many, the celebrations are an excuse for five days of beer-swigging to add cheer to the winter months before the pre-Easter fasting period of Lent.

Carnival grew out of the Roman tradition of celebrating the onset of spring and ancient Germanic fertility rites, which were later adopted by Christians to usher in Lent.

Reporting by Madeline Chambers

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