An anti-Islamist group drew the biggest crowd ever for one of its rallies, even as Germany's leaders urged people not to participate in a movement that has gained in strength since starting two months ago.
Police estimated that 15,000 protesters took part in Monday night's rally and march in the eastern city of Dresden, with another 5,500 attending a demonstration against the group.
"We don't want radical Islamists here," Thomas Schmidt, 53, said at the rally, a German flag wrapped around his shoulders. "People keep trying to brand us as Nazis – but we're not Nazis. We're just worried citizens."
The organisers, who call themselves Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida, demand stricter immigration laws, resistance to "violent, misogynistic political ideology," and the protection of Christianity's "Western culture." There have been similar, smaller protests in cities such as Dusseldorf in past weeks.
Pegida is part of a wave of anti-immigrant groups sweeping Europe that established parties in countries such as Britain, France and Sweden find difficult to counter. While Pegida isn't a party, it follows election successes this year of the anti- Euro Alternative for Germany, or AfD, that's critical of migrants and is taking voters from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union and her former Free Democrat allies.
"Pegida is a diffuse movement based on fear; I think it will gain more support," Joachim Scharfe, a 57-year-old church employee, said at Monday's counter-demonstration outside the city's 18th century Hofkirche Cathedral. "Most Pegida backers aren't neo-Nazis – they're people looking for simple answers."
The number of refugees pouring into Germany has increased almost 60 per cent this year, with the government estimating that 200,000 will enter the country in 2014. Last year, Germany surpassed the US as the top destination globally for refugees, when 127,000 people applied for asylum in the country.
"Ali Baba and the 40 Drug Dealers – deport them immediately," read one sign held up by two men on the edge of Dresden's historic center last night. The crowd frequently broke into chants of the slogan used by those who took to the streets to topple the East German government in 1989: "We are the People!" The crowd criticized television and newspaper coverage of the movement with chants of "Media Lies!"
Headed by Lutz Bachmann, 41, an advertising agency and bratwurst factory owner, Pegida relies on social media including Facebook where its page has more than 42,000 "Likes."
"We are strictly not against Islam but rather against Islamists and Islamization," Bachmann told the Junge Freiheit newspaper. "Pegida consistently rejects violence."
The group has drawn scorn from German political leaders. Ralf Jaeger – the Social Democratic Interior Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, the country's most populous state – said "neo-Nazis" are standing behind Pegida. Merkel warned the protests can't be used to push an agenda against refugees.
"In Germany, we have a right to demonstrate, but there is no room for incitement and slander against people who have come to us from other countries," Merkel said Monday in Berlin. "Therefore we have to ensure that such events aren't exploited by their initiators."
There are about 4 million Muslims in Germany, which has a total population of 81 million, according to the Central Council of Muslims in Germany's website. A poll by public broadcaster ZDF published last week showed 25 per cent of Germans think foreigners bring advantages, 24 per cent see them bringing disadvantages and 45 per cent saying the pluses and minuses of foreign residents balance out.
Pegida protests drew only a few hundred when they started in Dresden on Oct. 20. They gained followers after a 26 October rally against Islamist Salafists in the western city of Cologne by 4,000 neo-Nazis and soccer hooligans turned into a riot that left 40 police injured and led to the arrest of 17 people. The Pegida protests have been peaceful aside from the limited use of fireworks, according to MDR 1 Radio Sachsen.
"They call themselves anti-Islamist but they're also anti-US and against the mainstream media," Karl-Heinz Kamp, academic director at the German government's Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin, said by phone. "The sheer number means we have to take them seriously."
The number of Germans in far-right parties fell by 700 to 21,700 from 2011 to 2013, according to the Verfassungsschutz, Germany's domestic security agency. Yet several high-profile institutions have been targeted this year in attacks claimed by neo-Nazis.
Three firebombing attempts have taken place in Berlin since August on the Reichstag which houses parliament, a parliament office building and the headquarters of Merkel's CDU, according to German news agency DPA. In all three attacks, which didn't cause any damage, far-right propaganda or a letter claiming responsibility was left at the scene.
Three buildings due to be used as housing for asylum seekers were also burned on 11 December in the Bavarian town of Vorra, state Interior Minister Joachim Herrmann said in a Bayern2 radio interview. The attacks "are very clearly arson and the swastikas daubed on the walls lead to the suspicion that the culprits were right-wing extremists," he said.
"I have no sympathy for what's happening at the moment on German streets," German Justice Minister Heiko Maas said in Berlin. "Under the banner of Pegida, people are on the streets living out their resentments and their xenophobia on the backs of refugees who've just lost everything. That's why I would wish that as many people as possible show in coming days that that isn't the majority."
Backers of Salafism and radical Islamism increased to more than 43,000 German residents by end of last year – up from 38,000 in 2011, according to a report by the Verfassungsschutz. More than 6,000 Islamist extremists have ties to a Salafist branch of Sunni Islam that expounds radical thinking, according to the Federal Interior Ministry.
Salafists have also been involved in clashes. Kurds demonstrating against Islamic State in Hamburg in October battled radical Islamists for three consecutive nights as tensions over the fighting in Syria spilled into Germany.
Kamp, whose academy instructs German officials on security policy, says there's concern that some of the estimated 5,000 people from Germany and Europe who have gone to fight in Syria will return as trained terrorists to carry out attacks, leading to a surge in support for Pegida and other rightist groups.
"Why should a Syrian doctor who's needed at home come to Germany?" Martin Schotte, a 52-year-old self-employed construction supplier, said Monday night in Dresden. "I would actually profit from having more immigrants here I could hire as cheap labour. But I don't need cheap labour to keep my company going."
Leon Mangasarian – Bloomberg News
— With assistance from Tony Czuczka, Arne Delfs, Patrick Donahue and Brian Parkin in Berlin.
Image: Jens Schlueter / AFP / Lehtikuva