A record 17,000 anti-Islamic protesters rallied for their tenth demonstration in as many weeks in eastern Germany, celebrating the rise of their far-right populist movement by singing Christmas carols.
Germany has for weeks grappled with the emergence of the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident” or PEGIDA, whose ranks in the city of Dresden have swelled rapidly from just a few hundred in October.
About 4,500 counter-demonstrators marched through the city yesterday under the slogan “Dresden Nazi-free”, warning that there was no space for racism and xenophobia in the country that perpetrated the Holocaust.
Most PEGIDA followers insist they are not Nazis but patriots who worry about the “watering down” of their Christian-rooted culture and traditions. They often accuse mainstream political parties of betraying them and the media of lying.
Braving cold and wet weather, they gathered outside the historic Semperoper concert hall for their pre-Christmas recital. Police put their numbers at about 17,500, up from the previous high of 15,000 a week earlier.
The management of the opera house signalled its distaste by turning the building’s lights off and flying flags outside that read: “Open your eyes”, “Open your hearts”, “Open doors” and “Human dignity is sacrosanct”, the first line of the national constitution.
The Protestant bishop of Saxony state, Jochen Bohl, said the PEGIDA followers, by singing Christmas carols, were seeking “to exploit a Christian symbol and a Christian tradition” for political purposes, German news agency DPA reported.
Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, of the centre-left Social Democrats, called for concerned citizens to launch a “rebellion of the decent” against the anti-foreigner movement, saying “that’s the kind of public reaction we need now”.
PEGIDA, born in a city that was part of communist East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, has spawned copycat groups in western areas which have failed so far to attract similar crowds.
Smaller clone groups rallied yesterday in the western cities of Bonn, Kassel and Wuerzburg, but they only drew up to 200 followers each and were all vastly outnumbered by counter-demonstrations that drew 20,000 nationwide.
Police reported no major violence but said eight people were temporarily detained after confrontations in Kassel, reported DPA.
The biggest anti-PEGIDA march was held in the southern city of Munich, where at least 12,000 rallied under the banner “Make space — Refugees are welcome”.