Thousands mass in Dresden for anti-migrant rally, counter-protest

A supporter of the PEGIDA movement, which translates to Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, holds a poster featuring a crossed sign on veiled women at a recent protest rally in Dresden, Germany.
A supporter of the PEGIDA movement, which translates to Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, holds a poster featuring a crossed sign on veiled women at a recent protest rally in Dresden, Germany. PHOTO: AFP

DRESDEN, Germany (AFP) - Thousands of people massed Monday in the eastern German city of Dresden to mark the first anniversary of the anti-migrant movement PEGIDA, but just as many came out in counter-protest.

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.

One of them, Hannelore, said: "We are here for our children and grandchildren. We are proud to be here and that many people are here. We are glad that people have the courage to speak out."

"Pegida is not a brown-shirt movement. Never," said the protester in her sixties, referring to the Nazis, adding that "Frau Merkel is driving our country against the wall."

PEGIDA - short for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident- started life as a xenophobic Facebook group centred around co-founder Lutz Bachmann, 42.

At its peak, the movement attracted 25,000 at its weekly gatherings in January, before interest began to wane, not least because of Bachmann's online racist slurs and the surfacing of "selfies" in which he sported a Hitler moustache.

But PEGIDA has seen some revival in recent weeks as Germany gears up to welcome up to a million asylum seekers this year.

But counter-protesters also sought to make sure their voices were heard on Monday as they turned up in their thousands in Dresden.

Hans, 75, said he made it a point to be present because "PEGIDA is celebrating its birthday and we think that it is very important for the majority of the population to not join PEGIDA, and to show that they don't agree with the movement."

Ahead of the PEGIDA march, Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated a call for citizens to shun "those with hate in their hearts".

"The chancellor has already reacted to such demonstrations in her 2015 New Year's speech, and I would repeat it here as it is unfortunately still valid: 'Don't follow those who have hate in their hearts," said Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert.