BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s anti-Islam PEGIDA movement was overwhelmed by opponents of the far-right group at a rock concert for tolerance in Dresden on Monday and enormously popular counter-demonstrations in cities across the country.
More than 22,000 cheered German rock stars at an anti-PEGIDA rally in Dresden, where the movement that argues the country is being overrun by Muslims and refugees began in October. In Frankfurt 70 PEGIDA backers were outnumbered by 15,000.
“It’s great that you’re all here with us to send a signal tonight,” said Herbert Groenemeyer, one of Germany’s best-selling rock artists at the hastily organized free concert under the motto “Open and colorful -- Dresden is for everyone.”
“It’s horrible and sad what’s been happening in some people’s minds lately -- creating an atmosphere of hysteria where one religious group is being targeted as the scapegoat. It’s absurd, mean, unjust, undemocratic and completely unacceptable.”
PEGIDA, already reeling after its leader Lutz Bachmann quit for posing for a picture looking like Hitler and calling refugees “scumbags”, normally holds its rallies on Mondays but switched to Sunday to make way for the parade of rock stars.
“There are 4 million Muslims in Germany and they are just as much a part of our ‘economic miracle’ as all the other religions in Germany,” said Groenemeyer to the crowd, which braved heavy rain and chilly January temperatures for three hours.
In Munich, more than 2,300 anti-PEGIDA demonstrators outnumbered the 800 who took part in the PEGIDA rally there while, in Berlin, 500 supporters of the local BAERGIDA group were met by more than 1,000 counter-demonstrators.
Earlier on Monday, on the eve of Tuesday’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germans had an everlasting responsibility to fight all forms of anti-Semitism and racism.
In what appeared to be an indirect reference to PEGIDA, Merkel told a memorial for the victims of Auschwitz: “We’ve got to fight anti-Semitism and all racism from the outset.”
“We’ve got to constantly be on guard to protect our freedom, democracy and rule of law,” she said. “We’ve got to expose those who promote prejudices and conjure up bogeymen, the old ones as well as the new.”
Merkel said it was a disgrace that some Jews or those expressing support for Israel had been threatened or attacked in Germany, which was responsible for the Holocaust, and that protecting the growing Jewish community was a national duty.
Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Robin Pomeroy