By Erik Kirschbaum
BERLIN (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel gave guarded support on Monday to a close cabinet ally facing calls to resign over allegations of plagiarism, charges that are similar to accusations that brought down her defense minister and heir-apparent last year.
Merkel said she had confidence in Education Minister Annette Schavan after Der Spiegel magazine reported that a University of Duesseldorf examination of her 1980 doctoral thesis concluded parts were plagiarized and recommended taking away her PhD.
Schavan, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), has denied the charges. She was among the first to condemn then-Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg for plagiarizing his PhD thesis, calling it "shameful". He later resigned in disgrace, a mid-term setback to Merkel's government.
The charges against Schavan, 57, are more troublesome for Merkel in part because they come one year before the next election and also because, as education minister, Schavan's credibility is directly on the line with the now-hot button issue of plagiarism.
"I have full confidence in the minister," Merkel told a news conference, using language sounding less robust than she used to defend Guttenberg. "She has said she'll have a statement for the university. The university will then have to decide what to do."
The allegations of plagiarism in her 351-page thesis entitled "People and Conscience - Studies for conditions, needs and requirements for forming a conscience nowadays" have dogged Schavan, who as education and research minister oversees Germany's universities, since May.
She asked her alma mata, the University of Duesseldorf, to examine the accusations. A report conducted by the university's philosophy faculty found indications of a "plagiaristic approach" on 60 of the 351 pages, Der Spiegel reported.
Schavan denied the allegations in an interview on Monday with the Rheinische Post newspaper and said she will respond to the accusations as soon as she has seen the report herself.
"I completely reject the charges," she told the Suedwest Presse newspaper, adding she was dismayed that the report had been leaked to the media before she had seen it herself. "I won't stand for this. I will stand up to these accusations."
Calls for Schavan to resign poured in from the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens, who hope to oust Merkel's centre-right government in 2013 and form a centre-left coalition. Newspaper editorials also criticized Schavan.
"She has already lost the credibility needed for this ministry," said Renate Kuenast, a leader of the Greens party in parliament. "It's shameful to see her clinging to her job."
Merkel at first strongly defended Guttenberg, a rising star in her government and the most popular politician in the conservative spectrum in decades. But as the accusations of plagiarism deepened she later distanced herself from him.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Myra MacDonald)