Thousands of people massed Monday in the eastern German city of Dresden to mark the first anniversary of the anti-Islam movement PEGIDA, "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident".
Carrying placards with images such as a picture of burqa-wearing women with a big cross over it, or slogans like "Go Merkel: you give the Judas kiss", PEGIDA supporters gathered in downtown Dresden, the birthplace of the movement, chanting "resistance, resistance!".
"This has been a year of PEGIDA, a year of demonstrations. We are here. PEGIDA works," said co-founder of the movement Lutz Bachmann to cheers, claiming that 39,000 supporters had joined in the rally.
Independent estimates gave a smaller turnout, with local newspaper Saechische Zeitung saying 20,000 were present, while Durchgezaehlt, a university group specialising in rally estimates, said between 15,000 and 20,000 people attended the rally.
In a counter-demonstration, a similar number of anti-fascist and leftist activists also took to the streets.
At least one PEGIDA follower was seriously injured in clashes between the two groups.
PEGIDA emerged about a year ago with several hundred people showing up for "Monday strolls" in Dresden, although its numbers grew in the following months. At its peak, the xenophobic rallies attracted 25,000 marchers in Dresden, but also sparked far larger anti-fascist rallies in cities across Germany. The movement fizzled early this year following bickering among the leadership and after co-founder Lutz Bachmann sparked uproar with his anti-foreigner slurs and Facebook pictures showing him sporting a Hitler moustache and hairdo.
The mood at the Dresden rallies has become increasingly aggressive, and the reports of protester attacks on migrants, journalists and PEGIDA opponents have started to eclipse the day-to-day assistance given by hundreds of city residents to asylum seekers. Many accommodation centers have also reported violence against and among migrants, and several have been victims of arson attacks.
Meanwhile, Germany will extend temporary border controls until the end of October with a special focus on the Austrian border, the Federal Interior Ministry said yesterday. Berlin, which started to implement the controls on Sept. 13, has told the European Commission it will maintain them until Oct. 31, as "the situation at the border is such that we cannot do without them," a ministry spokeswoman told Agence France-Presse (AFP). "We need to return to an orderly handling of the refugee policy."
In the passport-free Schengen area of 26 European countries, members can temporarily reinstate border controls with other member states if they cite a security threat or exceptional circumstances. Members can reinstate border controls for 10 days and then maintain them for "renewable periods" of up to 20 days, for a maximum total of two months.
In addition, Merkel's conservatives and her Bavarian allies have agreed on a plan to set up "transit zones" at the border to filter out migrants who clearly have no chance of gaining asylum, Bavarian Minister-President Horst Seehofer said on Monday. Seehofer, who heads the Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU), the sister party to Merkel's CDU, said a concrete proposal would be drawn up by the two parties, the Bavarian government and the federal government, this week. Speaking at a CDU event at the northern city of Stade, Merkel said the idea was to directly stop at the border those people coming from countries deemed as safe, meaning their citizens have no claim to asylum, which include Kosovo, Albania and Montenegro. Among those already in that category are Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia.
Germany, the EU's most populous country and top economy, has taken in the largest share of migrants arriving in Europe to escape war and poverty, with total numbers expected to reach 800,000 to 1 million this year. Merkel has urged the country to welcome the newcomers and help to quickly integrate them, but she has faced harsh criticism and falling approval ratings, amid rising fears about the burden that the refugee wave poses for Germany. Anti-immigration ideology and xenophobia have become more visible in the country as a result of the efforts of political parties like the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD) and Alternative for Germany (AfD), as well as anti-Islam and anti-immigrant initiatives like PEGIDA, which have staged anti-immigrant rallies and drawn thousands of people throughout Europe, especially in Germany.
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