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Anti-Islamization Rally In Germany Draws Counter-Demonstrators

Thousands of people protested against Muslim immigration in the city of Leipzig Wednesday night. They were met by large counter-demonstrations and a massive police presence.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The growth of radical Islam in Europe has led to a backlash against immigrants from the Muslim world. In Germany, anti-immigrant and anti-Islam protesters and their opponents have been holding rival demonstrations. The most recent were last night in Leipzig, where we find NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Supporters of the anti-Islam group marched in downtown Leipzig chanting we are the people.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

CROWD: (Chanting in German).

NELSON: It's a slogan they appropriated from a pro-democracy movement born here a quarter century ago. That movement ultimately brought down the communist East German government. But last night, it was the future of the anti-Islam group called Pegida that was in doubt.

Its leader, Lutz Bachmann, stepped down yesterday after a photo of him sporting a Hitler mustache went viral, as did his online comments disparaging refugees. Organizers of last night's rally said nothing about that or disagreements between their allied groups. Instead, the leaders of the Leipzig affiliate railed against those who call them Nazis and repeated claims that they aren't racist. They say they oppose what they believe are runaway immigration policies in Germany.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: They also took turns complaining to the crowd about how thousands of supporters were prevented from joining the rally by anti-Pegida demonstrators and the German government.

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: One of the speakers was anti-immigration activist and author Juergen Elsaesser. He accused Chancellor Angela Merkel and her ministers of hypocrisy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUERGEN ELSAESSER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: "I can't understand how they say we are exaggerating the dangers of Islam," he said, "and yet prevent us from demonstrating because of an Islamic terror threat."

(APPLAUSE)

NELSON: Elsaesser was referring to a Monday rally in Dresden that authorities canceled after an Arabic-language tweet threatened Pegida's former leader, Bachmann. Meanwhile, Bachmann apologized for his online comments referring to refugees as cattle and filthy. The 41-year-old butcher's son did not address the photo of his Hitler parody. A Pegida spokeswoman called it satire.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

NELSON: But the 20,000 counter-protesters who turned out last night didn't find the anti-immigration movement funny. One of their organizers was city Councilwoman Juliane Nagel of Die Linke, or the Left Party.

JULIANE NAGEL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: She says their goal was to, without violence, keep their opponents from marching. But city officials put 4,000 police officers on the streets to keep the sides apart. Most of the demonstrators were peaceful, although authorities failed to stop vandals who damaged railroad property. That prevented a number of Pegida demonstrators from reaching the March. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Leipzig. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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