As anti-Islam marches grow in Germany, counter-protests swell also

The Cologne Cathedral and several other landmarks across Germany went dark last night in protest against marches by Pegida, an anti-Islamization movement that has rocked the country in recent months.

Martin Meissner/AP
The illumination of the world famous Cologne cathedral goes out during a rally called 'Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West' (Pegida) in Cologne, Germany, Monday evening. The church wants to protest against intolerance of the anti Islamic movement, that came up in many German cities.

The Cologne Cathedral is the most visited landmark in Germany. And in December, its massive towers, their lights bolstered by a brightly illuminated Christmas market, are even more striking than usual.

So when church officials turned off those lights last night in protest of Pegida, an anti-Islamization movement that has rocked Germany in recent months, they sent a powerful message about what they believe are mainstream German values in the 21st  century.

"We don't think of it as a protest, but we would like to make the many conservative Christians [who support Pegida] think about what they are doing," the dean of the cathedral, Norbert Feldhoff, told the BBC. 

The church officials have company: In Berlin, city authorities extinguished the lights at the Brandenburg Gate and the TV tower at Alexanderplatz. And counter-protests against Pegida are growing, both in Dresden and across the country, as many see Germany's history as a lesson for speaking out against intolerance.

"A look at our past and economic sense tells us Germany should not spurn refugees and asylum-seekers," former Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt wrote as part of an anti-Pegida campaign by politicians and public figures in the newspaper Bild.

The Dresden-based Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) has drawn thousands to its Monday night marches – last night saw the biggest turnout ever with 18,000. But Monday night's counter-actions underscored the views of the vast majority of Germans who accept migrants and refugees.

Germany has seen a surge in asylum applications, including from war-torn Syria. And Germany has let the refugees – and many other foreigners – in. Germany is one of the most tolerant nations in Europe, according to this year’s Transatlantic Trends survey at the German Marshall Fund of the US. It had the highest percentage of respondents, for example, willing to have less restrictive refugee policies, at 31 percent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed to her country to reject this movement. “Do not follow people who organize [such movements], for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate,” she said during her annual New Year’s address.

But despite that plea, slightly more protesters showed up yesterday than to the last protest, which drew 17,500 people right before Christmas.

Officials might take heart in the fact that as Pegida dominates the news, counter-protests are growing. Yesterday, they popped up in Dresden the heart of the movement, but also Berlin, Cologne, and Stuttgart.

The size of turnout on both sides reveals some of the divisions that migration is cutting across the country. In Dresden, 18,000 Pegida supporters were countered by 3,000 anti-Pegida protesters.

In the rest of the country, the turnout was the inverse. Some 5,000 counter-demonstrators marched against a few hundred Pegida supporters in Berlin. The same was true in Cologne.

As The Christian Science Monitor reported recently:

“The staying power of Pegida in Dresden underlines a gap between East and West Germany, in which the former faces higher unemployment, exclusion, and crucially, far lower rates of immigration – and consequently less tolerance. Some observers fear the marches here could ultimately stoke flames that populists could capitalize on. It’s a delicate balance for mainstream political parties in a country that’s been, until now, a magnet for foreigners – and for one that desperately needs them. “East Germany hasn’t experienced migration as much as the rest,” says Hajo Funke, a political science professor at the Free University Berlin. “They have not interacted with [migrants] so much, so that’s one reason why they can better project their fears and frustrations onto migrants.”

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