In Germany, Shock, Sympathy and New Debate Over 'Open Door'

A day after a series of coordinated attacks claimed at least 129 lives in Paris on Friday, Berlin's Brandenburg Gate was lit up in the red, white and blue of the French national flag as dozens of somber mourners braved cold temperatures to lay flowers, candles and messages of support in a tribute to the victims.

"It scares me to think that what happened in Paris could happen here but I am also afraid of the reaction of society," said Ada Wagner, a Berlin resident who left flowers outside of the French embassy. "I think we have show our unity as an answer to this terror. Now is not the time to argue or make blame."

But there was little unity among German politicians over the weekend, as shock and sympathy quickly gave way to a renewed debate over German Chancellor Angela Merkel's "open-door" refugee policy, with critics suggesting that the tide of humanity fleeing war represents a serious security threat.

Reports suggesting that at least one of the attackers may have come into Paris through Greece on a Syrian passport have sparked calls for stricter border controls. Markus Söder, finance minister for the southern German state of Bavaria, said Germany must close its borders if the European Union is unable to protect its external frontiers.

"The days of unchecked immigration and illegal entry can't continue just like that," Söder said in an interview with Welt am Sonntag newspaper. "Paris changes everything."

"We need to know who is traveling through our country," added Horst Seehofer, leader of Merkel's Bavarian coalition partner, the conservative Christian Social Union.

But Germany's defense minister on Sunday cautioned against attempts to link the refugee crisis with the Paris attacks.

"Terrorism is so well organized that it does not need to take the difficult route taken by the refugees, who risk their lives by crossing the high seas," Ursula von der Leyen told reporters in Berlin. "So I would advise that we be cautious about mixing the idea of terror with refugees."

Her comments echo a similar plea made Saturday by the country's interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, who noted a surge in far-right violence against immigrants and warned that inflammatory rhetoric could lead to more.

"We have a large number of attacks on asylum seekers and asylum homes," Maizière said at a press conference. "People need to consider their words."

Germany has become the destination of choice for many refugees following an August decision to relax asylum rules for Syrians. But the country has struggled to cope with the biggest refugee influx since World War II.

German authorities have registered nearly 760,000 new arrivals from January to October, and expect the number of asylum seekers to cross the million threshold by the end of the year. Despite rising criticism and declining poll numbers, Merkel has steadfastly rejected calls by party allies to cap the number of refugees absorbed by Germany.

"The backlash is likely to become stronger over the next few days but I don't think we will see any change in Germany's policy on refugees," said Gero Neugebauer, a political scientist at Berlin's Free University.

Neugebauer points out that Germany began enforcing a tougher asylum policy even before the Paris attacks, implementing new rules that would allow authorities to hold asylum-seekers in initial reception centers for a longer period of time while speeding up deportations for those whose applications have been rejected.

"It's hard to measure how the attacks will affect Germany's response but it is clear that the divisions we have seen so far in the refugee debate have only just become starker," said Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels. "The Paris attacks have served as a force multiplier on both sides of the equation."

Techau warns that terrorism concerns could complicate Germany's refugee policy.

"So far the debate in Germany has mostly been about identity and cost," he said. "But now this debate could turn into one about security, which becomes a lot more emotional and could make Ms. Merkel's approach to the crisis a lot harder to sustain."

The streets of Berlin were calm on Sunday, with most residents continuing about their business. But some expressed mixed feelings in the aftermath of the violence in Paris.

"Of course refugees deserve a safe place but also we have to think of our security," said Hans, a 36-year-old software developer who declined to give his last name. "I think it will be a difficult balance to make sure this kind of attack doesn't happen here and also to let those who need it get asylum."

Despite Friday's carnage in Paris, Merkel has so far given no sign of a shift in policy in response to pressure from political foes and allies.

"We know that our life of freedom is stronger than terror," Merkel said in an unusually emotional speech on Saturday. "Let us answer the terrorists by living our values with courage."

Those words resonated with Ahmad Saadi Mahayni, a 39-year-old businessman from Damascus who is now employed as a social worker at a refugee center in Berlin after obtaining asylum and residency in Germany.

Mahayni says he worries about militants taking advantage of Germany's open doors, but also fears that the backlash will make it more difficult for innocent civilians to find refuge.

"As a Muslim, I reject this violence but I am worried that it will affect in a bad way the situation of refugees," he said. "We have to remember that most of the people who come to Europe are running away from exactly this kind of violence in their homes in Syria or Iraq."

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