Anti-Muslim group marches as Merkel vows to rally for tolerance
Thousands of anti-Islamic protesters marched in Germany Monday, claiming the jihadist attacks in France vindicated their stance, hours after Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "Islam belongs to Germany".
The latest march of the right-wing populist PEGIDA movement in the eastern city of Dresden came a day before Merkel and most of her cabinet were set to join a Muslim community rally for religious tolerance.
Undeterred, supporters of the self-styled "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" gathered for the latest of a string of rallies that have recently drawn 18,000 people onto the streets of Dresden in the former communist east Germany.
Marchers waved the German national flag and again chanted "We are the people", while some carried signs that read "they can't kill our freedom" and "Je suis Charlie", claiming solidarity with those killed in last week's Islamist attack on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo.
One carried a picture of Merkel wearing a Muslim facial veil, mocking the chancellor who has urged citizens to stay away from PEGIDA marches.
Merkel earlier said she and several members of her cabinet would on Tuesday attend a vigil organised by Muslim groups in Berlin to denounce extremist violence and social division.
"Germany wants peaceful co-existence of Muslims and members of other religions," Merkel told reporters after talks with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, adding that Tuesday's vigil would send "a very strong message".
She added that German President Joachim Gauck would speak at the Muslim community rally.
The latest PEGIDA demonstration came after a firebombing early Sunday of the offices a tabloid in the northern city of Hamburg that had reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed from Charlie Hebdo.
German police were investigating whether there was a link between the show of support for the French weekly and the arson attack but let two suspects detained Sunday go for lack of evidence.
As a security precaution, the eastern city of Leipzig, which saw its first PEGIDA-style demonstration on Monday with several hundred marchers, has banned displays of Mohammed cartoons.
- 'Exploiting' Paris crimes -
With tensions running high, political leaders had urged PEGIDA to call off the event, saying it had no right to whip up hatred against Muslims in the name of solidarity with terror victims.
"If the organisers had a shred of decency they would simply cancel these demonstrations," Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the mass-selling daily Bild.
"It is simply disgusting how the people behind these protests are trying to exploit the despicable crimes in Paris."
The head of Merkel's Bavarian sister party, Horst Seehofer, echoed the call.
At a time "when the whole world is mourning and in shock over the events in Paris", PEGIDA leaders should at least "for the time being" cancel their rallies, Seehofer said.
The demonstrations, though largely limited to Dresden, have shaken the reunified country's image of itself as open to the world and tolerant.
Germany, Europe's most populous nation with around 80 million people, is home to about four million Muslims, three-quarters of whom are of Turkish origin.
In a survey conducted several weeks ago and released last Thursday, 57 percent of non-Muslim Germans said they felt threatened by Islam, four points higher than in 2012.
And 61 percent said Islam had no place in the West, according to the study released by the Bertelsmann Foundation think tank.
Meanwhile PEGIDA has said on its Facebook page that the killings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris confirmed its own views.
"The Islamists, which PEGIDA has been warning about for 12 weeks, showed France that they are not capable of democracy but rather look to violence and death as an answer," it said.
"Our politicians want us to believe the opposite. Must such a tragedy happen here in Germany first???"
Activists have announced plans for PEGIDlA spin-offs in Switzerland, Austria and Scandinavia, while other European far-right groups have voiced support for the German movement.
However, even as copycat marches are planned in other German cities, counterdemonstrations against PEGIDA have been growing in strength.
Many of the 35,000 who hit the streets of Dresden Saturday carried signs reading "I am Charlie but not PEGIDA" borrowing from the solidarity slogan with the Paris victims.
And during offshoot PEGIDA marches last Monday, landmarks such as Cologne cathedral and Berlin's Brandenburg Gate dimmed their lights just as the protesters gathered.
© 2015 AFP