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German Anti-Islam Activists Defy Critics, Spark Counterprotests

  • Pete Baumgartner

DRESDEN, Germany -- Tens of thousands of anti-Islam protesters have marched in Germany, claiming last week's terrorist attacks in Paris vindicated their stance, after Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "Islam belongs to Germany."

A right-wing populist movement called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (Pegida) organized demonstrations in Dresden and other German cities, ignoring calls by German officials to cancel the January 12 rallies out of respect for the 17 victims of the Paris attacks.

Counterprotesters also came out in force, reportedly totaling around 100,000 across the country and outnumbering the anti-Islamic demonstrators in a number of places.

On January 11, Justice Minister Heiko Maas had urged Pegida to call off the anti-Islam event, saying it had no right to stir hatred against Muslims while claiming solidarity with victims the Paris attacks.

Instead, marchers waved the German national flag and chanted, "We are the people," in what their opponents called a cynical attempt to co-opt an iconic slogan of the 1989 anticommunist demonstrations in East Germany.

Some of the estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Pegida marchers in Dresden wore black ribbons and carried signs that read, "Je suis Charlie," claiming solidarity with those killed in the January 7 attack against the satirical Paris weekly Charlie Hebdo.

The thousands of Pegida supporters attending the Dresden rally far outnumbered several thousand counterdemonstratrators who turned out there to oppose that group's anti-immigrant message.

WATCH: RFE/RL talks to anti-Islam demonstrators and counterdemonstrators in Dresden:

Guarded by a phalanx of police, a group of these counterdemonstrators chanted slogans that included, "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here."

Marchers at the January 12 rally in Dresden, organized by German right-wing populist movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), hold up German flags and a doctored image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Marchers at the January 12 rally in Dresden, organized by German right-wing populist movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident), hold up German flags and a doctored image of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Nico Schaedlich, a 22-year-old counterdemonstrator in Dresden, told RFE/RL that he was protesting what he considers the abhorrent views held by the right-wing Pegida movement.

"We don't like hate, and these Pegida [supporters] don't like refugees," Schaedlich said. "It's just human to help other people. And Pegida isn't that human, I think."

Many of the counterdemonstrators, dressed as street cleaners, carried brooms and mops to symbolize their support for sweeping away racism and prejudice in society.

In addition to voicing opposition to Islam, the Pegida supporters in Dresden demonstrated against Merkel's government, the European Union, and the news media.

In other cities across Germany on January 12, those attending counterprotests appeared to far outnumber the anti-Islam demonstrators.

Berlin police said a crowd of about 4,000 people demonstrated against about 400 Pegida supporters. The pro-tolerance demonstrators marched under the motto "We are Charlie. We are not Pegida," a reference to the French satirical weekly targeted in last week's deadliest Paris attack.

In Munich, authorities said about 20,000 people took to the streets to demonstrate against a Pegida rally that was attended by about 1,500 anti-Islam protesters.

Leipzig police estimated that 15,000 showed up to counter an anti-Islam rally there attended by far fewer demonstrators.

Marchers at Leipzig rally organized by LEGIDA, a local copycat of Dresden's right-wing populist movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident).

Marchers at Leipzig rally organized by LEGIDA, a local copycat of Dresden's right-wing populist movement Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident).

On January 13, Merkel and most of her cabinet plan to join a Muslim community rally for religious tolerance to be held at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

Her comment on January 12 that Islam "belonged to Germany" is seen as a clear repudiation of the Pegida protests.

Pegida supporters have rallied in Dresden weekly since October, drawing up to 18,000 marchers to their demonstration in that eastern German city.

But their protests recently have been dwarfed by protests against xenophobia and Islamophobia, with 35,000 people turning out January 10 in a Dresden demonstration to counter the Pegida rallies.

With reporting by AFP and dpa
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