Anti-Islamist group Pegida spreads across Europe

Thousands of protesters marched in Dusseldorf in support of the anti-immigration movement PEGIDA. Others demonstrated against them.Reuters

A growing anti-Islamist group which started in Germany, has spread to a number of European countries, including Spain, Norway and Denmark.

Pegida, which stands for 'Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West', is primarily concerned with immigration, though the attacks against satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris last week seem to have stirred support for the movement in Spain and further afield.

Just a few hundred people gathered for the first march in Dresden in October, but since then the weekly demonstrations on Monday evenings have gathered momentum, most recently attracting up to 25,000 people.

But even higher numbers have attended counter-demonstrations across Germany, including Dresden, Berlin and Cologne. In Dusseldorf this week people reportedly shouted "Pegida you're racist" as they marched, and the anti-Pegida protest in Leipzig on Monday attracted 35,000 people.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has strongly condemned Pegida. In an address at the start of the year she said those who led the rallies "have prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts".

Despite the opposition, Pegida branches have now been set up in a number of European countries. A small Pegida march took place in Oslo, Norway this week and a demonstration is allegedly planned in Denmark on Monday. Other marches planned in Switzerland and Belgium in the coming weeks, according to Al Jazeera.

The Twitter account for the Spanish offshoot opened on the day after Paris attacks, posting pictures of the suspected terrorists. Since then it has gained almost 1,000 Twitter followers and nearly 3,000 Facebook likes.

According to the Pegida Spain Facebook page, the branch had planned to hold its first rally on Monday 12 January, but had to cancel after it was refused permission to demonstrate at the proposed site outside Madrid's main mosque.

The group sent an email to AFP saying: "We are preparing a demonstration by Pegida Spain, where members of Pegida Germany will attend. We will publish the date on Twitter and announce it by email."

Other social media accounts suggest there are Pegida-linked groups in the Netherlands and France among others, though these have fewer followers as yet.

On 7 January, the day of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, a 'Pegida USA' Twitter account was opened, and now has just over 200 followers. It describes its stance as "Freedom, tolerance, rule of law. Positions of @pegidaUSA may not fully overlap with PEGIDA but are in agreement with stand against totalitarian barbarism."

In Pegida Germany's19-point position paper the group claims to support asylum for refugees fleeing war, and religious freedom, including welcoming Muslims who are integrated in German society. But they say they are against Islamist fundamentalism and any hint of Sharia law in Germany, claiming they want to protect Germany's Judaeo-Christian heritage.

Germany's immigration figures are second only to the United States, though the eastern city of Dresden, where the protests began, has a relatively small immigrant community.