Germany has turned off the lights at some of its most famous monuments. It’s part of a counterdemonstration against recent marches nationwide by a group protesting what its supporters see as the “Islamization of Europe.”
Here’s the background: A group calling itself PEGIDA — Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West — has protested since October against Germany’s asylum and immigration policies, which it views as lax. Germany takes in more refugees and asylum-seekers than other European Union countries.
PEGIDA’s views aren’t in the political fringe. One German journalist told the BBC that many of its supporters felt “hard done-by” by the media and politicians. And a recent poll in Stern magazine showed 1 in 8 Germans would join an anti-Islam march.
PEGIDA says it is not racist or xenophobic, says it opposes extremism and calls for the preservation of the country’s Judeo-Christian culture. One demonstration organized by the group in Dresden before Christmas drew 17,500 people; another one on Monday in the same city attracted 18,000 people.
But attempts to replicate that turnout elsewhere have been met with counterprotests.
Counterdemonstrations that drew thousands of people were held in Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Stuttgart. Efforts by PEGIDA supporters to march in Berlin on Monday were thwarted by counterdemonstrators who blocked their way. About 80 German politicians, celebrities and athletes signed a petition — headlined “No to PEGIDA” — in the newspaper Bild. They include former Chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder, as well as Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Family Minister Manuela Schwesig.
And in her New Year’s Day speech, Chancellor Angela Merkel called on her fellow Germans to be wary of groups such as PEGIDA.
“Do not follow people who organize these, for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate,” Merkel said.
In some of most striking images of the counterprotests, Germany turned off the lights at its most famous landmarks, including Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate and Cologne Cathedral.
“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,” Norbert Feldhoff, the dean of the cathedral, told the BBC.
Kathrin Oertel, one of PEGIDA’s main organizers, told a rally in Dresden that there was “political repression” once again in Germany.
“Or how would you see it when we are insulted or called racists or Nazis openly by all the political mainstream parties and media for our justified criticism of Germany’s asylum-seeker policies and the non-existent immigration policy?” she asked, according to the BBC.