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By Dave Graham
BERLIN (Reuters) - A central banker's attack on Turks and Arabs living in Germany has attracted a flood of popular support and sparked warnings that racial tolerance is on the wane, exposing a deep rift in the country over integration.
The comments by Thilo Sarrazin, a board member of the Bundesbank, have been criticised by his employer, won praise from neo-Nazis, and inspired thousands of Germans to take a public stand on the issue.
In an interview published last week in culture magazine Lettre International, Sarrazin called for a crackdown on immigration, arguing that too many Muslims were sponging off Germany.
"I don't need to accept anyone who lives off the state, rejects this country ... and is always producing little girls with headscarves. This is true of 70 percent of the Turkish and 90 percent of the Arab population of Berlin," Sarrazin said.
"The Turks are conquering Germany just like Kosovars once did Kosovo -- through a higher birth rate."
He added: "The path we're on means that the share of the intellectual elite (in society) is continually falling for demographic reasons."
Berlin state prosecutors said on Thursday a charge had been filed against Sarrazin which included the accusation he was inciting racial hatred. A spokesman said prosecutors were assessing the charge, but refused to say who had filed it.
Meanwhile, public debate is raging, with the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD) backing Sarrazin and urging the government to appoint him the country's commissioner on foreigners. About 3 million people in Germany are of Turkish origin and some 280,000 of Arab extraction, out of a population of 82 million.
An online poll by the Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger daily showed a third of respondents supported Sarrazin. A further 43 percent found his words "exaggerated in some cases but that he was right about many things." Another survey in daily Die Welt showed that over two-thirds felt criticism of Sarrazin was unjustified.
Ferit Temur, 40, a German-Turkish biologist from Berlin, said the remarks by Sarrazin -- who later offered a qualified apology -- were the most discriminatory he had ever heard.
"I wouldn't even expect to hear it from neo-Nazis," he said. "All this does is play people off against one another, it does nothing to promote integration. And to stigmatise women like that is completely ludicrous: it's an attack on the future."
Government research suggests Sarrazin's comments do not offer a representative picture of the situation in Europe's largest economy, which is relying increasingly on immigrants because of its ageing population and low birth rate.
A 2009 study by the Interior Ministry on Muslims in Germany found integration "was more positive than often assumed." It said 70 percent of Muslim women never wore headscarves. Second-generation immigrants were even less likely to do so.
Sarrazin, 64, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), spent most of the decade as finance minister of Berlin and has courted controversy in the past with outspoken comments. But never before had he focussed so overtly on race.
A number of leading newspapers have defended him, arguing that the divisive nature of some remarks did not invalidate the banker's other musings on social and economic integration.
Papers and blogs have been inundated with comment on Sarrazin, whose remarks followed threats to Germany from al Qaeda and the election of a new government that is expected to be less supportive of Turkey's hopes to join the European Union.
An online reader of Bild daily who identified himself as "Jochen33" was one of hundreds to hail Sarrazin on its website.
"The man's completely right: if you look around some parts of Berlin or Cologne it feels like you're in the Orient. Most of these people reject our state, but not state support," he said.
Johnny Haeusler, a writer on Berlin blog Spreeblick, told Reuters Sarrazin's defenders confused facts about immigrants with "dubious theories" and encouraged openly racist comments.
"I have the impression that views far to the right of the political centre are more readily tolerated than they were in the 1970s and 1980s -- to the extent that they may even have become established in the centre," he said.
Some SPD members have called for Sarrazin to be ejected from the party, while the Bundesbank has suggested he should resign.
Sebastian Edathy, head of the home affairs committee of the Bundestag lower house of parliament and an SPD member, said Sarrazin had to go, comparing his views with Nazi thinking.
"It would be even more of a problem if we let it pass and went back to business as usual," he said. "That would only give people even more encouragement to say these things. This is ultimately National Socialist ideology we're talking about."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)