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Uproar in Germany Over Salafi Drive to Hand Out Millions of Qurans

(AFP) -- German officials raised serious concerns Thursday about an ultra-conservative Islamic group's drive to hand out 25 million copies of the Quran, calling it an abuse of the holy text.

Amid a politically charged debate, some lawmakers however admonished critics to respect freedom of religion.

Volker Kauder, parliamentary group leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives, called the free distribution of millions of copies of Islamic scripture by ultra-conservative Salafists a cover for jihadist recruiting.

"I strongly condemn this initiative," he told German news agency DPA.

"The Quran is being abused here for subversive extremist activities. Muslim groups in Germany are right in distancing themselves from this abuse of religious liberty. And it would very much interest me to know where the money for these activities is coming from."

A group of Salafists calling itself "The True Religion" is seeking to pass out 25 million German-language copies of the Quran on the streets of Germany, Austria and Switzerland and via the Internet in a bid to convert non-Muslims.

The Central Council of Muslims has criticized the campaign, saying the Quran is the word of God and "not a PR brochure or leaflet that is distributed as a mass product."

Under public pressure, the publishing house working with the Salafists said Thursday it had stopped printing the books while it reviews its cooperation with the group.

The domestic intelligence service estimates there are about 2,500 Salafists, who espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam, in Germany and says it has them under official observation.

The service said in its most recent annual report dating from 2010 that Salafism was the fastest growing Islamic movement in the world and that it calls for replacing national legal frameworks with Sharia law, often by means of a violent struggle against the state.

"We are talking about an extremist, Islamist phenomenon but not a criminal one," a security source told AFP when asked about the Quran program.

"Distributing copies of the Quran is protected by religious freedom but the movement behind it will remain under observation."

Michael Hartmann, a domestic policy expert from the main opposition Social Democrats, agreed with the assessment, branding calls to ban the Salafist campaign "grotesque" in a liberal democracy.

Other deputies echoed his criticism.

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