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PEGIDA movement spreads across Europe, stirs anti-immigrant sentiment

Originating in Germany, anti-Muslim group spreads in aftermath of Charlie Hebdo attack

Having taken root in the German city of Dresden, the anti-Islamic movement PEGIDA is swiftly spreading across other parts of Western Europe. Galvanized by last week's attack on the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, organizers are now planning demonstrations in Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and others — blaming the alleged Islamification of Europe for the Paris massacre.

PEGIDA, Patriotische Europäer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West), drew a record 25,000 people to its 12th weekly rally in Dresden on Monday, the week after gunmen inspired by Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) killed 17 people in Paris.

In Spain PEGIDA tried to stage a protest in Madrid on Sunday but canceled the rally after being unable to secure permission from the municipality. But the group’s Facebook page shows members discussing alternate plans to protest near the cathedral of Cordoba (Mezquita), a former mosque built during the centuries of Muslim rule of the southern province of Andalucía.

In Switzerland, German PEGIDA members are planning to join the country’s first planned rally on Feb. 16 at a still undisclosed location, according to the group's Facebook page.

The Swiss chapter’s spokesman, Ignaz Bearth, has ties to Marine Le Pen’s popular National Front party, which staged a counterdemonstration during Sunday's Charlie Hebdo solidarity march, singing the French national anthem and chanting, “This is our home.” Le Pen has described Islam was an “odious ideology” and called on French President François Hollande to suspend the Schengen Agreement, which allows visa-free movement among 26 European nations.

In Belgium, nearly 100 people reported they were planning to attend the local PEGIDA branch’s first rally on Jan. 26 in the northern city of Antwerp. About 5,000 people have liked the group’s Facebook page, which was created Jan. 6. Among the organization's demands are more border protection and reducing the number of immigrants arriving from crisis zones. They also lament the decline of “historic folklore traditions” such as Black Pete.

Similar PEGIDA chapters now exist in Bulgaria, Austria, Italy, Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands. Followers of PEGIDA’s Twitter account posted a map of the movement’s offshoots throughout Europe, which shows splinter groups in over a dozen countries.

Immediately after the creation of local franchises, counterdemontrations have often been organized, many of which are larger than the PEGIDA demonstrations. While PEGIDA supporters say they are not racist, critics say their anti-immigrant agenda and anti-Islamic slogans reveal a hostility toward Muslims.

"They are using a fear of Islam to put chauvinism and racism on the street," said city official Michael Nattke in Dresden, where 35,000 marched against the movement on Sunday.

With Reuters

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