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Anti-Islamic protests in Dresden draw thousands, inspire spin-offs

PEGIDA branches planned in Austria, Scandinavia; new Swiss wing to hold demonstration next month
German right-wing populist movement PEGIDA rally in Dresden on 12 January (AFP)

Thousands of anti-Islamic protesters marched in Germany on Monday evening, claiming the recent attacks in France vindicated their stance, just hours after Chancellor Angela Merkel said that "Islam belongs to Germany".

Leaders of the so-called "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" (PEGIDA) asked participants to wear black armbands for the march and observe a moment of silence for "the victims of terrorism in Paris".

Meanwhile, Merkel, who attended Sunday's rally in Paris to commemorate victims of last week's attacks, said she and her cabinet would join a Muslim community vigil denouncing violence and supporting religious tolerance in Berlin on Tuesday. 

"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.  

PEGIDA's latest march - dubbed "evening strolls" by the group - drew a record 18,000 people in the eastern city of Dresden last week. However, counterprotests have been gaining momentum, with 35,000 people turning out in the city on Saturday against the right-wing populist group.

Monday night's march was expected to draw even more people following the attacks in France. The march also follows the firebombing on early Sunday against a tabloid in the northern city of Hamburg that had reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed from the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo.

It was at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo that gunmen first struck, kicking off France's three days of terror. 

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 will see its first PEGIDA-style demonstration on Monday, has banned marchers from displaying Mohammed cartoons, which have been seen at other events.

'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 in former communist East Germany, 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???"

PEGIDA spin-offs

Activists have announced plans for PEGIDA spin-offs in Austria and Scandinavia, while other European far-right groups have voiced support for the German movement.

Last week, a wing was established in Switzerland and announced on its newly created Facebook page that it plans to organise a demonstration at an undisclosed location next month.

The Swiss group also presented a 14-point programme, including calling for a ban on wearing full-face and body covering burkas in Switzerland and on imam visits to schools.

Even as copycat marches are planned in other German cities however, counterdemonstrations against PEGIDA are also 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.

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