Lindsey Parnby / EPA

Thousands protest UK branch of anti-Islam group PEGIDA

About 2,000 counterdemonstrators overshadow some 500 who went to support anti-Islam group in first UK rally

An estimated 2,000 people protested on Saturday in the city of Newcastle, in northeast England, as part of a counter-demonstration against a smaller march held by the British branch of Germany's anti-Islam group PEGIDA.

PEGIDA, which stands for “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” has for months been warning that Germany was being overrun by Muslims. While it has tried to spread its movement to other cities and countries, it has thus far met with limited success.

About 500 people attended Saturday's rally, PEGIDA's first-ever in the United Kingdom, the organization said on its Facebook page. That was compared to some 2,000 that staged a counter-demonstration. 

The PEGIDA demonstration and rally by opponents went on relatively peacefully, according to news reports. However, five people were arrested following scuffles between supporters of PEGIDA and opposition demonstrators, the Guardian reported. It wasn't immediately clear which side of the protests the arrestees were on. 

Marion Rogers, a spokesperson for PEGIDA United Kingdom, a branch of the German organization, told BBC News that the rally was "about integration."

"We are not anti-Islam. We are not here to split up any communities," Rogers told BBC. "We've invited Muslims to join us against extremism, extremism of any kind. I don't think it's wrong to stand up to terrorism. Is that hate?"

PEGIDA has tried to broaden its appeal by distancing itself from the far right, saying on its Facebook page that it is against "preachers of hate, regardless of what religion" and "radicalism, regardless of whether religiously or politically motivated."

"PEGIDA is for resistance against an anti-woman political ideology that emphasizes violence, but not against integrated Muslims living here," the group says.

It has also banned neo-Nazi symbols and slogans at its rallies, though critics have noted the praise and support it has received from known neo-Nazi groups.

Lutz Bachmann, the German PEGIDA group’s leader resigned last month amid controversy over a photo of him posing as Hitler. Five days ago, PEGIDA acknowledged that Bachmann had been reinstated as chairman. 

Dipu Ahad, a leader of the opposition protest, told BBC News that PEGIDA was targeting the Muslim community, which had already been "demonized in society."

"There's a fine line between freedom of speech and expression of hate," Ahad told BBC. 

Saturday’s protest in England was similar to a PEGIDA demonstration earlier this month in Austria, where the organization drew less than 200 supporters in the city of Linz and was outnumbered by some 2,000 counter-demonstrators. 

Small offshoots of PEGIDA have sprung up in German cities, and marches have taken place in the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark and Norway. But each of those rallies has attracted no more than a few hundred people and were dwarfed by far larger anti-racism rallies. 

The most recently large-scall PEGIDA march took place in January in the eastern German city of Dresden. At least 18,000 people marched in support of PEGIDA at that event, prompting sizeable counter-protests in several cities across the country. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had previously condemned anti-Muslim demonstrations centered on Dresden, saying there was "no place in Germany" for hatred of Muslims or any other minority. 

"In the name of the government and the chancellor I can say quite clearly that there is no place in Germany for religious hatred, no matter which religion people belong to," Merkel's spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz said in December.  

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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