A populist movement consisting of anti-Islam protesters in Germany has attracted crowds in several cities, drawing both condemnation and counter-protests within the European country.
According to the Associated Press, about several hundred Germans demonstrated in support of the nationalist ideology of a movement named Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA. However, thousands of counter-protesters showed up across four cities in Germany on Monday to denounce the movement's actions.
"You're taking part in an action that, from its roots and also from speeches, one can see is Nazi-ist, racist and extremist," Cologne Cathedral provost Norbert Feldhoff said. "And you're supporting people you really don't want to support."
The Associated Press reported that in silent solidarity with the counter-protesters, the Cologne Cathedral shut down its lights on Monday evening. German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to stay away from the rallies in her New Year's address.
"When the PEGIDA demonstrators chant 'we are the people,' they actually mean 'you don't belong because of your religion or your skin,'" Merkel said.
According to the Washington Post, Merkel added that PEGIDA should be rejected because "their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice." Business and political elites within the country, who aren't fans of PEGIDA's xenophobic image of Germany, have backed up the center-right leader's comments.
However, PEGIDA does have support in parts of Germany that have few immigrants or Muslims. German police reported that 18,000 protesters turned up to support PEGIDA demonstrations in Dresden; it has grown from a few hundred in October to around 17,500 at a rally just before Christmas, according to the Associated Press.
"In Germany we have political repression again," PEGIDA organizaer Kathrin Oertel said in response to Merkel's speech condemning the group. "How would you see it when we are insulted or called racists or Nazis openly by all the political mainstream parties and media for our justified criticism of Germany's asylum seeker policies and the non-existent immigration policy?"
Although PEGIDA claimed that has banned any neo-Nazi symbols and slogans at its rallies, critics have noted that known neo-Nazi groups have expressed support and praise for the movement. According to the Associated Press, the organization has also tried to distance itself from the far-right, noting in a position paper posted on Facebook that it is against "preachers of hate, regardless of what religion" and "radicalism, regardless of whether religiously or politically motivated."
"PEGIDA is for resistance against an anti-woman political ideology that emphasizes violence, but not against integrated Muslims living here," the group said.
Cem Ozdemir, the son of a Turkish immigrant and co-chairman of The Greens party, acknowledged to the Associated Press that although he was against any form of extremism, "intolerance cannot be fought with intolerance."
"The line is not between Christians and Muslims," Ozdemir said. "The line is between those who are intolerant ... and the others, the majority."
The Associated Press noted that some had other reasons to protest against PEGIDA and its ideology. Demonstrator Ursula Wozniak thought that the PEGIDA group was abusing Germany's democratic tradition.
"What is happening right now in Germany is just extremely shocking," Wozniak said.