Thousands join anti-Islam protest in eastern German city

Thousands join anti-Islam protest in eastern German city
Participants hold banners German national flags during a demonstration called by anti-immigration group PEGIDA in Dresden.

DRESDEN, Germany - Thousands demonstrated Monday in eastern Germany against "criminal asylum seekers" and the "Islamisation" of the country, in the latest show of strength of a growing far-right populist movement.

The mass demonstration in the eastern city of Dresden was the ninth so-called "Monday demonstration" organised by the group "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" or PEGIDA.

"We are the people," chanted the demonstrators, co-opting the phrase famously shouted a quarter-century ago by East German pro-democracy protesters here in the lead-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Dominated by ordinary citizens but supported by neo-Nazis and hard-right football hooligans, PEGIDA has sparked nationwide soul-searching as it has grown and spawned half a dozen clone movements across Germany.

Chancellor Angela Merkel earlier Monday condemned the protests and warned Germans not to be "exploited" by extremists, saying the right to demonstrate did not extend to "rabble-rousing and defamation" against foreigners.

In the crowd, many waved the black-red-gold national flag, and one held a cross painted in the same colours, while others held up signs that said "Wake up!", "We won't be cheated any more" and "We are mature citizens, not slaves".

"Seventy per cent of people claiming political asylum here are economic refgees," one of the protesters, Michael Stuerzenberger, asserted to AFP.

"We don't want to stay silent about this anymore."

"We don't want a flood of asylum seekers, we don't want Islamisation. We want to keep our country with our values. Is that so terrible? Does that make us Nazis? Is it a crime to be a patriot?"

Hundreds of riot police kept a close watch on the demonstration, and on counter-protests nearby marching under the banners "Dresden Nazi-free" and "Dresden for All", organised by civic, political and church groups.

While several known neo-Nazis have been spotted in the PEGIDA crowds, the rallies since October have been dominated not by jackbooted men with shorn heads but by disenchanted citizens who voice a string of grievances.

The anti-euro AfD party has openly sympathised with PEGIDA and several conservative politicians have argued the government must "listen" to the people's concerns about immigration and a large influx of refugees.

A poll for news website Zeit Online showed that nearly half of all Germans - 49 per cent - sympathised with PEGIDA's stated concerns and 30 per cent indicated they "fully" backed the protests' aims.

Almost three in four - 73 per cent - said they worried that "radical Islam" was gaining ground and 59 per cent said Germany accepted too many asylum seekers.

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