Germany backlash grows against anti-migrant protests

German political leaders, entertainers and sports stars threw their weight Tuesday into the growing backlash against a new anti-immigration movement, leading calls to defend the country’s hard-won image for tolerance.

A day after tens of thousands again took to the streets in several cities to rally for and against a new group which opposes what it claims is the Islamisation of Europe, 50 prominent figures issued statements in a two-page spread in the Bild daily to push back.

In its latest show of strength, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident, or PEGIDA, drew some 18,000 people to a demonstration Monday in its hub city of Dresden in the former communist east.

Its sudden emergence over just a few weeks and the regular staging of marches have sparked offshoot protests elsewhere, but also a counter-movement accusing PEGIDA of whipping up xenophobia.

“PEGIDA is not only damaging our country, it is also presenting a poor image of Germany,” warned Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of the 50 figures writing in Bild.

Ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt, a still-influential elder statesman, said the PEGIDA protests pandered to “hollow prejudices, xenophobia and intolerance”.

“But that is not Germany,” he added, while Germany’s national football team manager Oliver Bierhoff noted the 2014 World Cup winning squad had included many players with migrant family backgrounds.

News website Spiegel Online meanwhile devoted its top story to international media coverage of the anti-Islam movement.

Chancellor Angela Merkel urged people in her New Year’s address to spurn the protests, whose leaders, she said, often had “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts”.

And with Europe’s leading but rapidly ageing economic power crying out for migrant labour to fill vacancies for skilled jobs, business leaders are also speaking out in favour of immigration.

– Re-define image –

Thousands joined counter-protests Monday in cities such as Berlin, Stuttgart and Cologne, carrying placards such as one that read “Disgrace For Our Country”. Numbers at some demonstrations far outnumbered PEGIDA’s supporters.

In Berlin, around 5,000 took part in the anti-PEGIDA rally, compared to around 300 in support of the group.

Cologne’s imposing Gothic cathedral, carmaker VW’s plant in Dresden and the iconic Brandenburg Gate in the capital Berlin dimmed their lights in protest against PEGIDA, following the lead of Dresden’s Semper opera house a fortnight earlier.

Germany prides itself on efforts to come to terms with its Nazi past and is sensitive to any threat to the values and international standing it has fought hard to establish since the war.

“Particularly in Germany we should be sensitive when a religious minority is made a scapegoat for structural problems,” the head of the Council for Migration, Werner Schiffauer, was quoted by Tuesday’s Die Welt newspaper as saying.

Amid a record influx of asylum seekers from countries stricken by war and poverty, Germany, like several of its European peers, faces a heated immigration debate, with some areas of the country grappling to cope with new arrivals.

Germany is home to about three million people of Turkish descent, while fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has caused a surge of refugees to the country in the past few years.

The Federal Office for Migration and Refugees says that Germany expects 230,000 asylum seekers in 2015, up from a predicted 200,000 last year.

Sociologist and immigration specialist Naika Foroutan, of Berlin’s Humboldt University, said Germany needed to re-define its own image after having long refused to accept that it was a country of immigration.

Speaking on Deutsche Welle public television, she also put PEGIDA’s emergence down to a lack of knowledge among supporters.

“It manifests itself, for example, in the claim of an Islamisation of Germany, while the population of Muslim origin only represents five percent of the total population,” she said.

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