BERLIN German Muslim groups on Wednesday accused a senior politician in Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party of stirring up hostility against foreigners in a bid to win a regional election.
Roland Koch of the Christian Democrats (CDU) has focused his campaign for re-election as premier of the prosperous western state of Hesse on crime, in particular offences by foreigners.
He reacted to an assault on a German pensioner by two youths -- one Greek, one Turkish -- in a Munich railway station by saying Germany had too many young foreign criminals and urging an end to "multicultural" coddling of immigrants.
The assailants shouted "Shit German" at the man before kicking him in the head. The brutal attack, caught on a surveillance camera and played repeatedly on German television in recent days, prompted calls for tougher sentencing, boot camps and even the deportation of criminals of foreign origins.
"The debate is shameful and scandalous," head of the TGD Turkish Communities in Germany Kenan Kolat told Reuters on Wednesday, saying the deportation issue was "political arson".
"This is pure populism," he said, urging Merkel to speak out against it.
Germany is home to about 15 million people with an immigrant background -- about 18 percent of the population -- and Merkel has talked often about the need to integrate the country's 3.2 million Muslims, most of whom are of Turkish origin.
But she says immigrants must accept German culture and won rapturous applause at a conference of her mostly Roman Catholic party last month for saying mosques should not dwarf churches.
On Wednesday, Koch unveiled a programme to crack down on youth crime, which included plans to change the law to make it easier to deport young criminals.
"He needs to grab attention and is playing the foreigner card but it's damaging as he is reinforcing negative cliches," said Aiman Mazyek, of the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.
Ali Kizilkaya, head of the Muslim group Islamrat, called Koch irresponsible.
"You might be able to win elections with these slogans but it will damage the image of Germany," he told Reuters, saying he would like to have seen more criticism of Koch from other CDU members, many of whom have backed him, and from the media.
Social Democrat (SPD) Andrea Ypsilanti, Koch's opponent in the January 27 vote in Hesse, accused him of resorting to panic measures and waging a campaign based on fear.
Most polls indicate Koch will lose his absolute majority but that he will be able to hold onto power by forming a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP).
Critics have accused Koch of using "anti-foreigner" tactics before. In 1999, he won the Hesse vote with a petition against plans to give citizenship to half the country's foreigners.
(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Giles Elgood)