BERLIN (AP) — German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday warned the country's citizens not to participate in weekly anti-Islam rallies that have attracted growing numbers of supporters in the eastern German city of Dresden.
Merkel condemned the organizers of the protests and said they were driven by prejudices and hatred against foreigners.
The chancellor used unusually direct words in her New Year's speech on Wednesday for the rallies organized by a group calling itself Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA which have been attended by thousands.
When the protesters chant "we are the people," they actually mean to say "you don't belong — because of your religion or your skin color," Merkel said.
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.
Immigration has emerged as a contentious topic lately in Germany, partly due to a sharp rise in asylum applications, particularly from Syrians.
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.
The number of participants at PEGIDA's weekly demonstrations in Dresden, a region that has few immigrants or Muslims, has swelled from a few hundred in October to more than 17,000 in December. Similar groups elsewhere haven't mobilized anywhere near as many people, and there have also been large protests against them.
Merkel's speech was released in print early Wednesday and will be shown on public television in the evening.