THOUSANDS of supporters and opponents of a group campaigning against what it sees as the “Islamisation” of Europe have held rival rallies across Germany.
There have been weekly protests by the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West (Pegida) throughout the country since last October.
A record 18,000 people turned out on Monday night at one Pegida rally in Dresden but this was met with counter demonstrations which have sprung up and the group has been condemned by senior German politicians.
Top-selling tabloid Bild and 50 prominent Germans called yesterday for an end to what they see as rising xenophobia, against Muslim immigration.
Counter-protesters who marched in Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Stuggart, accuse Pegida of fanning racism and intolerance, with Bild publishing a “No to Pegida” appeal yesterday covering the front page and a spread on pages two and three that included quotes from the 50 politicians and celebrities.
“[They] are saying ‘no’ to xenophobia and ‘yes’ to diversity and tolerance,” Bild’s deputy editor, Bela Anda, wrote in a commentary. “We should not hand over our streets to hollow rallying cries.”
In Berlin, police said that some 5,000 counter-demonstrators blocked hundreds of Pegida supporters from marching along their planned route. A total of 22,000 anti-Pegida demonstrators rallied in Stuttgart, Muenster and Hamburg, according to the DPS news agency.
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But in Dresden, police said 18,000 people turned up for just one anti-immigration rally. The counter-demonstration attracted 3,000 people. In Cologne, the authorities switched off the lights of the city’s cathedral as a warning Pegida supporters were backing “extremists”.
“We don’t think of it as a protest, but we would like to make the many conservative Christians [who support Pegida] think about what they are doing,” the dean of the cathedral, Norbert Feldhoff, said.
In Cologne, home to a large Muslim population, there were ten times as many counter-demonstrators as Pegida protesters – only about 250 Pegida supporters showed up in the city, compared to thousands of counter-demonstrators.
Much of the city centre was in darkness as lights were extinguished at major buildings and bridges across the Rhine. “Today, there is really a democratic sign being sent and a lot of people in Cologne are expressing their opinion,” said Cologne mayor Juergen Roters. “They want to stress we here in Cologne don’t want to have anything to do with right-wing extremists and xenophobic people.”
In Dresden, carmaker Volkswagen said it was keeping its manufacturing plant dark to show it “stands for an open, free and democratic society”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attacked the movement in her New Year speech, saying its leaders have “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts”.
Kathrin Oertel, one of the main organisers of Pegida, responded in a speech at the rally in Dresden. She said that there was “political repression” in Germany once again.
“Or how would you see it when we are insulted or called racists or Nazis openly by all the political mainstream parties and media for our justified criticism of Germany’s asylum-seeker policies and the non-existent immigration policy?”
Similarly in multi-ethnic Berlin, some 5,000 counter-demonstrators swamped 400 anti-Muslim protesters. Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate switched off the lights to protest against the rallies. Pegida has nonetheless shaken Germany’s political establishment which some say could help the Eurosceptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD).
But the AfD, dogged by internal power struggle, is split over how to deal with the movement.
Bild’s campaign drew existing and former politicians, celebrities and businessmen.
“(Pegida) appeals to hollow prejudices, xenophobia and intolerance,” wrote former Social Democrat chancellor Helmut Schmidt. “A look at our past and economic sense tells us Germany should not spurn refugees and asylum seekers,” he added.
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