Merkel warns Germans not to fall prey to anti-immigrant group
BERLIN - Agence France-Presse
Participants hold a banner during a demonstration called by anti-immigration group PEGIDA, a German abbreviation for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West", in Dresden December 8, 2014. REUTERS PhotoGerman Chancellor Angela Merkel Dec. 15 condemned a wave of protests against immigrants, asylum seekers and the "Islamization" of the country and warned Germans not to be "exploited" by extremists.
Ahead of fresh marches planned later Monday by the far-right populist "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident" (PEGIDA) group, Merkel said a right to demonstrate did not extend to "rabble-rousing and defamation" against foreigners.
She told reporters that those taking part in the protests "should take care not to be exploited" by radical elements trying to harness fears of rising numbers of foreigners in Germany to drive an extremist movement.
PEGIDA started with a few hundred people in October in Dresden, in the former communist east, and swelled to a crowd of 10,000 last Monday. It has also spawned half a dozen smaller clone groups in other cities.
A poll for news website Zeit Online showed that nearly one in two Germans -- 49 percent -- sympathised with PEGIDA's stated concerns and 30 percent indicated they "fully" backed the protests' aims.
Almost three in four -- 73 percent -- said they worried that "radical Islam" was gaining ground and 59 percent said Germany accepted too many asylum seekers.
Protest organisers sought to rally even greater numbers this week, while counter demonstrators were set to march under the banner "Dresden for all - for a cosmopolitan Dresden".
Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that the marches "bring shame" on the country and that Germans should stand up to racism.
He warned that Germany, amid a record influx of asylum seekers from countries stricken by war and poverty, is experiencing an "escalation of agitation against immigrants and refugees" and called the trend "repugnant and abhorrent".
Since the protests have grown in size, a debate about immigration and refugees has gripped Germany, a country whose Nazi past makes expressions of xenophobia especially troubling.
Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has become the continent's top destination for asylum seekers and the world's number two destination for migrants after the United States.
The influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and several African and Balkan countries has strained local governments, which have scrambled to house the newcomers in old schools, office blocks and army barracks.
Asylum homes have been targeted by vandals and arsonists but elsewhere local residents have sought to welcome refugees with neighbourhood support services.
While some politicians have argued the government needs to listen closer to the concerns of citizens about immigration, others have pointed out that the fast-greying country needs newcomers.
"Refugees are good for our country," the parliamentary leader of the Social Democrats, Thomas Oppermann, told the Focus news weekly.
"We Germans received a lot of support after World War II, and these people deserve our protection. And besides, many Syrian refugees have qualifications that we desperately need in this country."