German President Joachim Gauck vowed to safeguard the country’s diversity and tolerance a day after a group opposing Islam’s influence in Europe drew a record crowd.
“Immigration makes Germany more multifacted -- religiously, culturally and mentally,” Gauck said today at a Berlin vigil organized by the country’s Muslim organizations. “We stand against any form of demonization or exclusion.”
Gauck was joined at the ceremony by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and other senior politicians in a show of solidarity with Muslims after 25,000 people turned out for the anti-Islam rally in the city of Dresden. Also attending the Berlin event were Christian and Jewish leaders.
Germany’s political and religious leaders have struggled with how to respond to the rise of the Dresden group, which has seen increasing support at its almost weekly rallies which began three months ago with just a few hundred attendees. The group wrote on Facebook that the killings last week of 17 people in Paris by Islamists “ram home our point.”
Merkel has sought to damp support for the group, telling Germans in a New Year’s address not to attend the events because some of the organizers have “hatred in their hearts.”
“People who come to us out of deprivation or fear, who need protection, deserve to be treated here with dignity,” Merkel, who did not speak at the vigil, said earlier today. “We need to turn against everything that places into question our fundamental values, the values in our constitution.”
Organizers of the Berlin ceremony -- which attracted about 3,000 participants to the Brandenburg Gate next to the French Embassy -- remembered those who died in the Paris terror attacks last week with a minute of silence.
“The perpetrators have betrayed Islam with their act,” Aiman Mazyek, chairman of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims, said in a speech. “We won’t allow our beliefs to be misused.”
Abraham Lehrer, vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, urged the country’s Muslim leaders to fight against anti-semitism in their community.
“The last thing we want is to suspect all Muslims or to denigrate this religion,” Lehrer said. “But we must not close our eyes: there is a stronger and stronger radicalization in Islam.”
Germany has increased security at synagogues and Jewish centers following the attacks in Paris, where some of the victims were Jews.
“The uncertainty of the Jewish community is increasing -- also in Germany,” Lehrer said. “We all ask ourselves distraught: who will be next.”
The rise of the Dresden movement, which calls itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or Pegida in German, follows successes last year in state and European Union elections by the anti-euro Alternative for Germany.
The AfD, which is critical of German immigration policy, is taking voters from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and other parties. Bernd Lucke, the AfD’s leader, said in an interview published yesterday in Die Welt that Pegida supporters would be welcome in his party.
Pegida demands tighter immigration laws, measures to fight “religious preachers of hatred” and a zero-tolerance policy for immigrants who commit crimes. An Infratest-Dimap poll showed 21 percent of Germans have “sympathy” for Pegida. The backing was higher, 31 percent, in formerly communist eastern Germany, which has far fewer foreigners, and 19 percent in the western part of the country.
“What’s now happening on German streets is alarming,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said. “We won’t allow that the Paris events are misused and that Muslims are put under general suspicion.”
Germans also came out in large numbers last night to protest against the anti-Islam demonstrators, with more than 100,000 joining rallies across the country in cities that included Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and Dusseldorf, according to figures from German news agency DPA.
Germans are increasingly worried about Islam, according to a Bertelsmann Foundation poll published Jan. 8. Islam is seen as a threat by 57 percent of the nation’s non-Muslims, up from 53 percent in 2012. Overall, 61 percent of Germans say Islam isn’t compatible with life in the West, up from 52 percent three years ago. The country has 4 million Muslims out of a population of 81 million.
The concern comes as the number of refugees arriving in Germany, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, surged by almost 60 percent last year, with the government estimating that 200,000 entered the country.
“I’m just here to do my part to stand against extremism and to show that freedom is part of our constitution and our society,” Mohammed Cecen, a 22-year-old business student from Ulm, said at the Berlin event. “As a liberal, I’ll always stand for freedom.”