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First of Syrian quota refugees reach Germany

The first of 5,000 Syrian refugees picked mostly from crowded camps in Lebanon have arrived on a chartered flight in Hanover, Germany. Criteria used have been questioned by church groups.

German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich (pictured fourth from left) welcomed 107 Syrians, half of them children, on the tarmac of Hanover's airport on Wednesday. Germany's 16 regional states agreed last March to host 5,000 civil-war refugees for two years.

Those arriving will spend two weeks at a pair of reception hostels in northern Germany before being allocated to the regional states. The most populous, North Rhine-Westphalia, is to accept 1,060, and the smallest, Bremen, some 50.

Around 300 have already made it to Germany by their own means. The quota of 5,000 granted entry visas were picked from among Syrians registered months ago with UN and charitable agencies in Lebanon.

Also present to greet the new arrivals in Hanover, Lower Saxony state's regional capital, was its Social Democrat interior minister Boris Pistorius.

Take in more, urges church

The chairman of the German Protestant church's migration and integration service Volker Jung said he hoped all 5,000 would be brought quickly from Lebanon, adding that Germany should prepare to take in more Syrians.

Every day, 5,000 Syrians were fleeing into neighboring Middle East countries who had so far taken in two-million displaced by Syria's civil-war, Jung said.

He criticized Germany's current requirement that hosts in the country pay health insurance for incoming Syrians.

"Humanitarianism should not fail because of what's in the purse," Jung said, urging church communities to welcome new arrivals with "open arms."

"We need, especially for refugees and those seeking shelter, a new culture of being welcomed in Germany," Jung said.

Merkel aides rejects criticism

Wolfgang Bosbach, a colleague of Friedrich's and the interior affairs spokesman in Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative government, called on all EU nations to take in Syrian refugees, saying Germany had taken in more than the bloc's average.

"I regret that the impression has been given as if Germany is not fulfilling its humanitarian obligations," Bosbach said, referring to remarks by opposition parties ahead of German's election on September 22.

The criteria such as contacts with family already in Germany had been set by both governing and opposition parties in a joint parliamentary motion in June, Bosbach said.

Plight of Syria's minorities highlighted

The opposition Social Democrat's candidate for chancellor Peer Steinbrück told the Catholic news agency KNA that Germany must take in more Syrian refugees, especially by reuniting families split apart by Syria's turmoil.

Leading Greens party candidate Jürgen Trittin demanded that Germany receive significantly more than the quota of 5,000.

The Association for Endangered Peoples based in Göttingen said Syria's minorities, including Kurds, Druze and Assyrian Aramaic Christians, must be given shelter.

Last week, Sweden said it would grant permanent residency to newly arrived asylum-seekers from Syria. Sweden has received nearly 15,000 asylum-seeking Syrians since last year.

According to the German Interior Ministry, some 18,000 refugees have come to Germany to apply for asylum since March 2011, when Syria's civil war began. 45,000 Syrian nationals already live in Germany.

ipj/dr (dpa, epd, KNA, Reuters)