Anti-Islamist movement Pegida that is growing in Germany surfaces in Spain

MADRID (AFP) - An anti-Islamic movement that is growing in Germany has opened a branch in Spain following last week's attacks in France, the group said Wednesday.

The Spanish wing of Pegida was launched on Twitter on Jan 8, the day after an attack by Islamist gunmen on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris that left 12 people dead including some of the country's best-loved cartoonists.

"Islam has no place in free and democratic societies like Europe," the group said in one of its first Twitter messages that day.

The Spanish branch of the "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" (Pegida) has just over 800 followers on its Twitter page and over 2,700 likes on its Facebook page.

"We are preparing a demonstration by Pegida Spain, where members of Pegida Germany will attend. We will publish the date on Twitter and announce it by email," the group said in an e-mail sent to AFP.

It had initially planned to hold its first demonstration on Monday outside Madrid's main mosque but called that off after government authorities refused to grant permission and suggested a different location.

Launched in Germany in October with a march of just 500 people, Pegida has since swelled rapidly, prompting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to deplore its rise in a New Year's address, saying the group's leaders have "prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts".

Demonstrations held by the group in Germany have been met with counter-demonstrations advocating religious and racial tolerance.

Pegida has voiced a wide range of grievances and railed against diverse enemies, not just Islam and asylum-seekers, but also the media and a political elite whom they accuse of diluting Germany's Christian-based culture with multi-culturalism.

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

The Spanish Pegida's Twitter account is already following those of several far-right Spanish groups including the Falange, the nationalist party that provided the ideological basis for Francisco Franco's 1939-75 dictatorship.

Spain has about 1,000 mosques, Islamic cultural centres and prayer halls and around two million Muslims out of a total population of around 47 million people, according to the Union of Islamic Communities of Spain.