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Johannes Rau, 75; German Leader Who Urged Ties With Israel and Asked Forgiveness for Holocaust

January 28, 2006|From Associated Press

Johannes Rau, the former German president who urged his country to open up to foreigners and promoted deeper ties with Israel, died Friday, his office announced. Rau was 75.

No cause of death was given, but Rau had suffered from persistent health problems in recent years.

During his 1999-2004 term as president, Rau paid particular attention to cementing Germany's ties with Israel, rooted in the countries' shared history of the Holocaust.

In 2000, he became the first person to speak German in the Israeli parliament, making an emotional plea for forgiveness.

"With the people of Israel watching, I bow in humility before those murdered, before those who don't have graves where I could ask them for forgiveness," Rau said.

"I am asking for forgiveness for what Germans have done, for myself and my generation, for the sake of our children and grandchildren, whose future I would like to see alongside the children of Israel."

"Germany has lost an extraordinary personality," Chancellor Angela Merkel said, praising Rau's "tireless commitment to democracy, justice, human rights and understanding between people."

In Israel, President Moshe Katsav called Rau "a great friend of the state of Israel and the Jewish people."

"During his tenure as president, Herr Rau was a great fighter against anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial."

The son of a Protestant pastor, Rau was born in the western city of Wuppertal. He dropped out of high school and worked as a journalist and at a Protestant publishing house before entering politics as a member of the Social Democratic Party.

He became mayor of Wuppertal in 1969 and, in 1978, governor of his home state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous and the country's industrial heartland -- a post that he held for two decades.

The Social Democrats made him their candidate in a failed effort to unseat conservative Chancellor Helmut Kohl in the 1987 general election, and he lost a first bid for president in 1994.

Rau persuaded German lawmakers to elect him on his second try in 1999, fending off concerns about his health; he had his left kidney removed in 1992 and had an operation in 2000 to replace a stomach artery.

He was inaugurated in July 1999 in the German parliament's last session in Bonn before the government moved to the historic capital of Berlin.

Rau stepped into Germany's intensifying debate on immigration, seeking a balance between urging Germans to respect foreigners and acknowledging their fears as the country became increasingly multicultural.

In 2003, Rau waded into a debate on whether Muslim teachers should be allowed to wear head scarves in the classroom -- saying that if the Islamic veil were banned, Christian and Jewish religious symbols also should go.

That position drew criticism from many on both right and left who consider the scarf a political rather than religious symbol.

Rau announced in 2003 that he would not seek a second five-year term, saying he had made the decision after consulting with his family. He was replaced in 2004 by Germany's current president, conservative Horst Koehler.

Rau is survived by his wife, Christina Delius, and three children.

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