BERLIN (AFP) - German police have noted a significant rise in far-right extremism and attacks targeting foreigners, a news report said Sunday, amid national debate about a new Islamophobic movement.
The trend is seen as a backlash against a sharp increase in refugees arriving in Germany, Europe's biggest economy and top destination for asylum-seekers and other migrants.
"We're seeing a significant nationwide increase in xenophobic offences," Federal Criminal Police Office chief Holger Muench told an interior ministers conference last week, the Welt am Sonntag reported, citing participants.
In the latest attack, three buildings reserved to house asylum seekers were set ablaze in the southern town of Vorra last Thursday, with Nazi swastikas and racist slogans scrawled on the walls.
Germany's domestic security agency estimates there are almost 22,000 far-right extremists, more than a quarter of them neo-Nazis, in the country. About 10,000 are considered potentially militant.
In the eastern state of Saxony, the number of anti-foreigner crimes has reached 179, up from 152 the previous year and the highest level in over a decade, the newspaper reported.
The state capital of Dresden is the birthplace of a swelling protest movement called "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident", or PEGIDA, which drew over 10,000 people last Monday.
The marches have been dominated not by shaven-headed neo-Nazis but by disenchanted citizens with a host of grievances, many waving German flags and chanting nationalistic slogans.
News weekly Spiegel reported that three PEGIDA organisers have criminal records and that the group has drawn support from the neo-Nazi and far-right football hooligan movements.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokeswoman Friday condemned PEGIDA and its smaller clones in half a dozen German cities, saying "there is no place in Germany for Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, hatred of foreigners or racism".
The small but growing anti-euro party Alternative for Germany (AfD), represented in three eastern state assemblies and the European parliament, has meanwhile voiced sympathy for the demonstrators.
The AfD's Bernd Lucke told the Berliner Zeitung am Sonntag newspaper: "There is an Islamist ideology that glorifies violence, discriminates against women and questions our legal system. When citizens rebel against that, it is right and proper." A majority of Germans are at least open to some of the views voiced by PEGIDA and the right-wing AfD, according to a poll for news weekly Spiegel by the TNS institute.
Almost two-thirds of Germans think Merkel's government is not paying enough attention to concerns about immigration and asylum-seekers, it found, and 34 percent believe Germany is undergoing a process of "Islamisation".