ERFURT, Germany (AP) — Weeks after declaring that there is no place for Islam in Germany, a surging nationalist party has sharpened its rhetoric against prominent Islamic groups and suggested limiting the religious freedom of the more than 4 million Muslims in the country.
Senior members of Alternative for Germany cut short a meeting Monday with the Central Council of Muslims, accusing the group of failing to renounce religious beliefs that they claim clash with the German constitution.
The confrontation came days after the party — known by its acronym AfD — launched a campaign against the construction of a mosque in the eastern state of Thuringia, joining up for the first time with the group known as the Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West.
Both groups have seen their popularity rise after Germany saw a greater influx of migrants in 2015 than any other European country. Nearly 1.1 million people — most of them Muslims — were registered as asylum-seekers, though the actual number who came is believed to be somewhat lower.
AfD had previously kept PEGIDA at arm's length due to its links with far-right extremists, but the party's leader in Thuringia, Bjoern Hoecke, said there was "a lot of overlap" between the two on the issue of Islam.
"We see a need to send a signal," Hoecke told The Associated Press ahead of a rally last week in Erfurt, the state capital. "We have common goals."
PEGIDA is known for staging protests that draw thousands in neighboring Dresden each week. One of its founders, Lutz Bachmann, was recently convicted of inciting hatred online after referring to migrants as "cattle" and "trash."
In Erfurt, PEGIDA and AfD have teamed up to oppose an application from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to build the mosque for its 70 members in Thuringia, claiming the building's domed roof and minaret would symbolize Islam's attempt to conquer Europe.
AfD is introducing a bill in the state Parliament to stop new mosques from being built, though it's unlikely to win the support needed from other parties to pass.
Instead, Hoecke hinted AfD was prepared to take its case to the streets, a point the party underlined by inviting a senior PEGIDA member to last Wednesday's rally.
"AfD in Thuringia will do everything legally possible to prevent this building," he said.
The party shocked Germany's political establishment in March when it swept into three state Parliaments on a wave of anti-immigration sentiment. In Thuringia's neighboring state of Saxony-Anhalt the party received almost a quarter of the vote to come second behind Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats.
And just as AfD opposed Merkel's stance that Germany could manage the influx of migrants, so too it is rejecting her position that Islam "belongs to Germany."
With polls giving the party double-digit ratings nationwide, AfD's new focus on Islam is likely to influence debate on the issue in Germany.
Following Monday's meeting with the Central Council of Muslims, AfD's co-chair Frauke Petry claimed that Islam was "stuck in the 7th century."
"Islam, the way it is mostly practiced, doesn't belong to a democratic Germany," she told reporters in Berlin.
Aiman Mazyek, chairman of the Central Council of Muslims, countered by claiming that AfD stance was reminiscent of Germany's dark Nazi past.
Although they only represent a minority of Muslims in the country, the Ahmadiyya community has been recognized as an official religious body in some German states, giving it the right to tax its members just like the Christian churches and the Jewish community.
"It's time to build a mosque because it would be a sign of integration for us Muslims," said community representative Suleman Malik. "It's important for us to be able to live our faith freely, and a mosque is part of that."
Erfurt has 25 churches and 10 chapels, whose many steeples prompted Protestant reformer Martin Luther to refer to it as "the city of towers." Above them all soars Erfurt's Gothic cathedral.
Less prominent but equally historic is the city's Old Synagogue, which dates back more than 900 years, making it one of the oldest such buildings still standing in Europe. It ceased being a place of worship after all of the city's Jews were murdered in a pogrom in 1349.
Hoecke, claimed the Ahmadiyya community's missionary efforts and stated aim of building 100 mosques in Germany by 2020 are part of a "long-term land grab."
"I worry that maybe, not tomorrow or the day after but perhaps in the not too distant future, the (Islamic) crescent will appear on our cathedral," he said.
Thuringia's governor, Bodo Ramelow, said AfD was fearmongering. "We have 2.16 million inhabitants in Thuringia; of these 7,000 are Muslims," he told the AP. "They (AfD) are making false claims to put the Ahmadiyya community under suspicion."
Hoecke, who has risen to prominence in his party with fiery speeches, made clear last week that only Muslims who submit to Germany's secular order and the wishes of the country's indigenous population were welcome.
"If a Muslim in this country won't accept that, then he's free to roll up his prayer rug, stick it under his arm and leave this country," the former teacher told a crowd of about 700 people.
Eyeing the rally from a distance, student Robert Guschel, had a different viewpoint.
"I'm much more afraid of these people than I am of Islamists," he said. "Sure, there are potential risks from Islamic extremists but stopping a mosque from being built is going to alienate Muslims and prevent them from integrating into our society."
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