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Police, Counter-Demonstrators Dampen Anti-Islam March In Leipzig


Thousands of protesters marched in the German city of Leipzig this evening in the latest in a series of anti-Islam marches in the country. The protesters object to the growing numbers of Muslim immigrants coming to Germany and what they claim is the Islamization of Europe. Today's protest was much smaller than expected and coincided with the sudden resignation of the man who started the protest movement last year.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us now from Leipzig. And Soraya, we'd been told to expect a huge demonstration - maybe 60,000 people - what happened in the end?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Well, I think it was a combination of an incredibly large police presence - we're talking 4,000 officers - many of them from different states or places outside of Leipzig - who were really keeping a tight control over who was coming in and out of the city and moving about in the city - as well as counterdemonstrators. There were 19 groups that applied for permits. I myself saw two within the vicinity of this anti-Islamization or anti-Islam march. And I think that helped keep people away. Certainly, the organizers of the LEGIDA rally - and that stands for Leipzig Against the Islamization of Europe. They were saying that people were actually being kept - that there were thousands more who would've joined in, except they could not get to the march.

CORNISH: And there's been fierce criticism from the government and religious figures, not to mention counterdemonstrations. Did that also have an effect in keeping this demonstration small?

NELSON: Absolutely, and again, I think it caused nervousness on the part of police. They were very, very determined to keep the two sides apart. I could hear what appeared to be stun grenades or concussion bombs, they're called, that were apparently being lobbed in some areas where perhaps there was some encounters. But for the most part, the police were able to keep the two sides apart.

CORNISH: And Soraya, who were the organizers of these rallies, and why did their leader resign today?

NELSON: Well, a lot of them claim to be common folk. The one who resigned - he's the founder of the original group PEGIDA, which is Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of Europe, and he ran his rallies out of Dresden. He resigned because he was seen in some photographs that emerged on social media and also in regular media of him sort of taking on a Hitler pose where he had a bit of a mustache and sort of that stern look that Hitler has. And also, he was making some disparaging remarks about refugees that again appeared on social media.

So under pressure - because, I mean, this is a guy who's been getting up there saying we are not racist we are just looking out for the interests of Germany - we want the people who immigrate here to be integrated. So because of that, he really couldn't stay in charge anymore. And so he did resign tonight.

CORNISH: Soraya, finally, have there been any demands? Do they want to talk with the government?

NELSON: They certainly do want to talk to the government. LEGIDA and PEGIDA both would like to see immigration restricted. They want refugees not to be coming in the large numbers that they are into Germany, and they don't feel their government represents them, and certainly tonight they were calling Chancellor Merkel all kinds of names and demanding that she step down.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson speaking to us from Leipzig Germany. Thank you so much.

NELSON: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.