Scuffles erupted Monday night at a rally to mark the first anniversary of the anti-foreigner Pegida movement in the eastern German city of Dresden, where counter protesters held their own demonstration.
Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) said 15,000-20,000 protesters took part in the rally.
Meanwhile, some 15,000-19,000 people gathered at various locations in the city centre to protest Pegida under the slogan “Heart instead of hate,” organizers said
Police were pelted with firecrackers thrown by Pegida supporters. The Saechsischen Zeitung newspaper said one Pegida supporter was injured with a metal rod but gave no further details.
There was scattered violence overnight as small groups of Pegida ralliers and their opponents clashed on Dresden streets, a police spokesman and the newspaper reported.
Police had water cannon ready for crowd dispersal but did not use them.
The rally was held outside Dresden’s landmark Semper Opera House, where an electronic screen flashed messages including “We are not a stage for intolerance.”
Pediga, which lost much of its following this year amid internal divisions, has gained new momentum as more Germans express concerns about the government’s decision to ease asylum rules for those escaping war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa.
Police had deployed more than 1,000 officers to secure the rallies in Dresden, the Saxony state capital, calling in help from other parts of Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said she believed those attending the protests organized by Pegida “had hate in their hearts.” Merkel had warned people to stay away from the rally.
At last week’s Pegida rally one protester carried gallows marked “reserved” for Merkel, while one of the movement’s leaders described the chancellor as “the most dangerous woman in Europe.”
“There can be no more excuses for those who run around with gallows and Hitler moustaches,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said Monday.
Early this year, German media published a photo of Pegida co-founder Lutz Bachmann posing as Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, complete with moustache.
In a tweet, Maas welcomed the counterdemonstration as an “important sign for democracy.”
Tensions surrounding Monday’s Pegida rally were heightened by Saturday’s knife attack on a pro-refugee local politician in the western city of Cologne.
Police said that the man who stabbed Henriette Reker, who was running for mayor in an election on Sunday, has told them he was motivated by her support for the government’s policy on asylum-seekers.
Reker, who remains hospitalized, won the election.
In Leipzig, about 100 kilometres west of Dresden, Mayor Burkhard Jung received a death threat Monday. A drawing of gallows and the words “Mayor Jung we’ll get you” were scrawled across a container, police said.
Pegida organizers were “hardcore right-wing extremists,” Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere told state broadcaster ARD.
From what was initially a few hundred marchers in what it calls a weekly “evening walk” through Dresden, Pegida grew to a crowd of more than 25,000 at the height of its popularity in January.
The numbers attending weekly rallies fell sharply following a series of scandals that rocked the organization, prompting Bachmann and five other members of the leadership to leave the movement.
This included the scandal triggered by the publication of Bachmann posing as Hitler. He was indicted for posting racial slurs on Facebook.
Bachmann, who has again taken up the reins of the movement just as it has been garnering more support, was among the speakers at the rally, which lasted nearly three hours.
Merkel faces mounting political pressure after she declared more than a month ago that Germany could handle the influx of refugees.
In September, she brushed aside concerns about whether Germany could house, shelter and integrate such an enormous number of new arrivals, saying: “We can do this.”
The chancellor’s liberal refugee stance prompted a rebellion among some of her supporters, with Merkel facing a stormy meeting of her conservative Christian Democrats in Saxony, which has seen a dramatic rise in attacks on refugee accommodations.