BERLIN (Reuters) - The anti-Islam group PEGIDA, whose weekly rallies have brought up to 25,000 onto the streets in the east German city of Dresden, is a part of Germany and should not be ignored, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in an interview published on Wednesday.
PEGIDA, which stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Polarisation of the West, rattled the political establishment in Berlin but now looks set to fade after most of its leaders quit last week due to infighting.
However, Gabriel told Stern magazine on Wednesday that politicians must engage with the concerns that the group and its supporters had raised.
"It's not like these people think differently all of a sudden ... They're still driven by anger, fear, insecurity and sometimes hatred of foreigners," said Gabriel, who is also head of the Social Democrats, who are in coalition with Merkel's conservatives.
Asked if PEGIDA was a part of Germany, Gabriel said: "Quite clearly. Whether you like it or not, people have a democratic right to be right-wing or nationalist. People also have a right to spread stupid ideas, such as the notion that Germany is being Islamicized."
Merkel has warned Germans not to let themselves be manipulated by PEGIDA, and said that some of its leaders have "hatred in their hearts".
Last month, she embraced comments made by former German president Christian Wulff, who triggering a fierce debate in 2010 when he said Islam was a part of Germany.
Reporting by Michael Nienaber, Editing by Kevin Liffey