BERLIN (Reuters) - The face veil is not compatible with German society but it would probably be difficult to ban the garment at the national level, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said on Thursday.
Several high-profile members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc have called for a ban on the burqa and niqab garments, saying they show a lack of integration, suggest women are inferior and could pose security risks.
Germans are on edge after several violent attacks on civilians last month, two of which were claimed by the Islamic State militant group. More than a million migrants, many of them Muslim, arrived in Germany last year, leaving some Germans concerned that their country is being overrun by people with a different culture and religion.
“We’re against people wearing the full veil in Germany - it has no place in our country and it doesn’t comply with our understanding of the role of women,” de Maiziere told journalists before meeting conservative state interior ministers to discuss security issues in the wake of the attacks.
Germany is home to nearly four million Muslims, about five percent of the total population.
There are no official statistics on the number of women wearing a burqa - which covers the face and body - in Germany but Aiman Mazyek, leader of its Central Council of Muslims, has said hardly any women wear it in the country.
A study carried out by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees in 2009 found that more than two-thirds of Muslim women in Germany did not even wear a headscarf. The niqab covers the hair and face except for the eyes.
De Maiziere said baring one’s face and being able to look other people in the eye was key to ensuring social cohesion. He added that people who go to register themselves with authorities or go to a civil registry office - where marriage ceremonies are conducted, for example - clearly needed to show their faces.
Support for the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which wants to ban the burqa and minarets, has risen in the wake of a migrant influx. The AfD is expected to perform well in regional elections in Berlin and the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in September.
Merkel told the Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland (RND) group of newspapers that women wearing a complete veil had “hardly any chance of integrating”.
She left open whether a nationwide ban was feasible saying this was a “complex political and legal issue” and de Maiziere had her full support in coming up with a solution to it.
De Maiziere has stressed he has reservations about whether banning the face veil would be compatible with the constitution after speaking to constitutional experts about it.
On Thursday he said he thought such legislation may be within the remit of the federal states, though he suggested he was open to the federal government coordinating state-level regulations to avoid big differences arising between the 16 states.
He also said that a ban on niqab and burqa veils in public that was introduced in France in 2010 had not led to a reduction in women wearing them there nevertheless.
Labour Minister Andrea Nahles, a member of the Social Democrats (SPD), junior partner in Merkel’s ruling coalition, said the conservatives’ demands for a burqa ban were a sign of an “increasingly xenophobic” political discourse in Germany.
Reporting by Michelle Martin and by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Mark Heinrich