The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christian clergy are fighting against Germany’s anti-Islam protests

People walk through the entrance of a Christmas market in front of Cologne's cathedral (background), in Cologne, Germany, December 8, 2014. JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

The famous Cologne cathedral planned to switch off its lights on Monday evening as a sign of protest against "anti-Islam" marchers assembling in the German city. Demonstrations staged by a populist movement dubbed "Pegida" -- the German acronym for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the West -- have shaken Germany for the past month, drawing big crowds in a handful of cities and condemnation from the country's Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Critics say the movement is a vehicle for far-right hate and neo-fascism. The weekly marches are emulating pro-democracy protests that took place in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet Union. But they are animated by far different beliefs.

Pegida supporters claim to represent a considerable spectrum of German society, fearful about the consequences of an influx of refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom are Muslim. They say they are anti-extremist, but others point to the prevalence of hate groups among Pegida's ranks and say the movement is nothing more than dressed-up, "pinstriped Nazis."

In a New Year address, Merkel urged her compatriots to reject Pegida because "their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice." The center-right leader's comments have been largely backed by the rest of the country's political and business elites, who dislike the xenophobic image of Germany conveyed by Pegida's marches.

According to one poll, cited in WorldViews by my colleague Rick Noack, half of Germany has sympathy for the anti-Islam protesters. Another poll indicates 1 out of 8 Germans would join the demonstrations if they were nearby. The largest gathering so far drew some 17,000 protesters on Dec. 22 in the eastern city of Dresden.

Christian clergy echoed Merkel's repudiation of the protesters. "Pegida is made up of an astonishingly broad mix of people, ranging from those in the middle of society to racists and the extreme right-wing," Norbert Feldhoff, dean of the Cologne cathedral, told Reuters. "By switching off the floodlighting we want to make those on the march stop and think. It is a challenge: consider who you are marching alongside."

In his New Year's Eve sermon, Cologne's Roman Catholic archbishop used the occasion to call for solidarity with refugees. Last year, Germany absorbed a third of all asylum seekers heading to the E.U. -- some 200,000 in total -- but the figures pale in comparison to the numbers still displaced by conflict and war in their homelands.

"It is not us in wealthy Europe who have a refugee problem, but the poor neighboring countries of the crisis regions," said Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki. "This is a truth we declare too little, too timidly, and too quietly."

Pope Francis has been outspoken in his support for the plight of tens of thousands of migrants, struggling (and sometimes dying) to reach Europe.

The debate in Germany over immigration and integrating asylum seekers has heated up in recent years. Xenophobic politics have also seen a resurgence in other parts of Europe -- Islamophobic, anti-immigration parties, for example, will play a key role in British national elections this year and, in Sweden, represent a powerful new political force.

Some would hope Germany, which knows all too well the dangers of such ideologies, may become the staging ground for a push-back against Europe's populist bigotry. The Pegida marches have drawn thousands of others onto the streets in counter-protests.