German city braced for Pegida demonstration as record 25,000 attend latest march organised by far-right group in Dresden, the first since Paris attacks.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and most of her cabinet will join a rally for an “open and tolerant Germany” called by Muslim leaders at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Tuesday after another night of anti-Muslim rallies across the country.
The vigil was called by Muslim organisations to remember the victims of the Islamist militant attacks on French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher shop in Paris.
The attacks in France have inflamed the row in Germany over demonstrations by supporters of the far-right Pegida group, who have gathered in Dresden and a growing number of cities since October.
On Monday night, a record 25,000 anti-Islamist protesters marched through Dresden, many holding banners with anti-immigrant slogans, and held a minute’s silence for the victims of the Paris attacks.
Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann set out the group’s demands for the German government, including drawing up a new immigration law, forcing immigrants to integrate, and making sure that Islamists who leave Germany to fight are not allowed back into the country.
Leading politicians stepped up their criticism after Pegida organisers announced that this week’s demonstrations would be held in mourning for the people killed in Paris.
Horst Seehofer, head of the conservative Christian Social Union, called for Monday’s Pegida marches to be called off, while the interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, accused Pegida organisers of exploiting the Paris attacks.
On Monday, Merkel triggered a fierce debate when she pointed to comments made by the former German president Christian Wulff, who said in 2010 that Islam was part of Germany.
“Former president Wulff said Islam belongs to Germany. That is true. I also hold this opinion,” she said at a news conference with Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who also took part in the Paris march on Sunday.
Between 6,000 and 10,000 people were expected to attend a Pegida anti-Islam rally in Leipzig on Monday night after the city lifted a ban on cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, as Germany braced itself for the first such protests since the attacks in Paris.
The ban was added to the city’s list of conditions on the demonstration permit in the wake of the attacks, but met with several complaints.
The city’s mayor, Burkhard Jung, told state broadcaster MDR that he had decided to lift the ban, saying that a demonstration permit was not the place to curtail freedom of speech.
Marcel Nowicki, a Leipziger helping to coordinate counter-demonstrations, did not want to speculate on precise numbers, but about 23,000 people said on Facebook they would be attending.
An anti-Pegida demonstration on Saturday in Dresden in favour of tolerance, organised by the government of Saxony, attracted 35,000 people.
“That was very encouraging, of course,” said Nowicki. “But there were other things that have also been very encouraging for us. There were support events [in Leipzig] throughout the weeks before.”
Legida, the name of the Pegida group in Leipzig, posted the official set of rules for ’s protest on its Facebook page at the weekend, including the ban on Muhammad caricatures, along with a notice saying: “These are to be strictly obeyed.”
Nowicki said the organisers had used the ban for their own ends. “It wasn’t forced top-down,” he said. “It was a nice publicity stunt. What the Legida protesters did was to proclaim that they have been forced not to show any of those caricatures. In reality it wasn’t quite like that.”
A spokesman for the city said the ban had been imposed by mutual agreement between organisers and the local public order office.
Criticism of the ban came from city councillor René Hobusch, among others. He said the ban amounted to censorship and was an “unacceptable restriction on the freedoms of assembly and speech”.