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Poll: Anti-Muslim marches would draw 1 in 8 Germans

Survey also finds two-thirds of those polled believe that the Islamization of Germany is being exaggerated

One German in eight would join an anti-Muslim march if a rapidly growing protest movement organized one in their hometown, according to an opinion poll published on Thursday.

A survey of 1,006 people by opinion polling firm Forsa for Germany's Stern magazine found 13 percent would attend an anti-Muslim march nearby. It also found 29 percent of people believed that Islam was having such an influence on life in Germany that the marches were justified.

While two-thirds of those polled believed that the Islamization of Germany was being exaggerated, many Germans are concerned about the numbers of asylum seekers fleeing countries such as Syria.

The survey highlighted growing support in Germany, as in other European Union countries, including Britain and Sweden, for parties and movements tapping into voter fears that mainstream politicians are too soft on immigration.

Some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel's bloc worry that they risk losing support to the euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany (AFD) party, which has shifted its focus to immigration and includes many who also back the PEGIDA protest movement — Patriotische Europäer gegen eine Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West).

PEGIDA is holding weekly rallies in the eastern city of Dresden, where there are few immigrants or Muslims, and attracted more than 17,000 people to a Dec. 22 rally.

Germans traveled from near and far for the rally. A 36-year-old German living in Switzerland, who asked to only go by his first name, Detlev, told Al Jazeera at the demonstration that “Germany’s becoming the world’s welfare office.” Another demonstrator, who asked to remain anonymous, hailed from faraway Regensburg, 200 miles to Dresden’s southwest. “No one’s controlling where these people are coming from,” he said, referring to Germany’s growing number of newcomers.

A few small marches have taken place in other towns, and PEGIDA plans to stage further rallies in other German cities.

PEGIDA organizers insist they are protesting only against extremism and not against immigrants or Islam itself, but the demonstrations have received support from far-right groups, prompting concerns that anti-foreigner sentiment might be rising.

In her New Year address Wednesday, Merkel warned the country's citizens not to participate in the anti-Islam rallies. Merkel condemned the organizers of the protests and said they were driven by prejudices and hatred against foreigners.

Partly in response to its Nazi past, German asylum rules are among the most liberal in the world. The number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany surged to about 200,000 in 2014, four times the numbers in 2012 — partly due to the ongoing crisis in Syria. Net immigration has hit a two-decade high.

However, Merkel also referred to this topic and stressed that refugees from wars and crises around the globe are welcome in Germany, saying many of them "literally escaped death."

"It goes without saying that we will help them and accommodate people who are looking for refuge," the chancellor said.

AfD leader Bernd Lucke criticized Merkel's New Year address in comments due to appear in Friday's edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) paper, accusing her of disrespecting citizens. A New Year address should unite rather than divide people, he said, accusing Merkel of branding all those who joined PEGIDA marches as anti-immigrant without listening to their views.

He said he saw no place for anti-immigrant sentiment in Germany, but that problems should be discussed properly to stop such views taking hold.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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