By GEIR MOULSON
.c The Associated Press

BERLIN (AP) – Johannes Rau, the former German president who urged his country to open up to foreigners and promoted deeper ties with Israel, died Friday at age 75, his office said. 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.”
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, the 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 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 traveledabroad frequently as the moral voice of a modern, reunited Germany. At home, 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.
Rau is survived by his wife, Christina Delius, and three children.