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(Confetti is released as Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan leaves the stage following a speech to some 15,000 Turks living in Germany at an arena in Duesseldorf February 27, 2011/Wolfgang Rattay )

Turkish immigrants in Germany should integrate into society but not assimilate to the point where they abandon their native culture, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on a visit to Germany on Sunday. Speaking to some 10,000 members of Germany’s large Turkish community in the wake of last year’s heated debate over the place of foreigners in the country, Erdogan took up the theme of integration amid what he sees as persistent European xenophobia.

“You must integrate, but I am against assimilation … no one may ignore the rights of minorities,” he said, adding that individuals should have the right to practice their own faith.

On Saturday, Erdogan threw an even sharper barb at German immigration policy, telling the Rheinische Post newspaper that forced integration requiring immigrants to suppress their culture and language was an affront to international law.

Immigration leapt to the forefront of political debate last year after central banker Thilo Sarrazin published a bestselling book that argued German culture was at risk from Muslims, who he said were a drain on state coffers. The debate left raw nerves on both sides as German politicians initially closed ranks to condemn Sarrazin’s theories, but later shifted tones rightwards as polls showed he enjoyed widespread support. Sarrazin later stepped down.