Supporters of the PEGIDA movement, or "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the Occident," during a rally in Dresden, Germany on December 8, 2014
Berlin (AFP) - They march in their thousands every Monday evening, wave German national flags and angrily protest against "criminal asylum seekers" and the "Islamisation" of their home country.
In recent months, Germany has witnessed the emergence of a far-right populist movement that has drawn support from hardcore neo-Nazis and also a small but growing anti-euro party, the AfD.
Germany was rattled this week when the latest in a series of marches in the eastern city of Dresden by the "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident", or PEGIDA, drew over 10,000 people.
The group's name is in itself "a veritable call to arms by far-right populists", evoking echoes of Christian crusaders and Nazi propaganda, said Hajo Funke of Berlin's Free University.
"It's about the mobilisation of resentment, about establishing an enemy. It becomes dangerous if it turns into contemptuous aggression and the awakening of mob instincts," the political scientist told AFP.
PEGIDA, launched in October, has grown and spawned smaller copycat groups nationwide, provoking much soul-searching in a country haunted by its history of Nazi terror and the Holocaust.
A spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel said Friday that the government condemned the anti-Islam marches "in the strongest terms".
"There is no place in Germany for Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, hatred of foreigners or racism," she told reporters, pledging decisive government action against "any form of hatred".
- 'Can't stay silent' -
The protests have been fuelled by a sharp rise in refugees seeking political asylum in Germany, which is scrambling to house them in converted schools, office blocks and container villages.
In a further sign of backlash, three buildings reserved to house asylum seekers were set ablaze in the southern town of Vorra late Thursday, with Nazi swastikas and xenophobic slogans scrawled on the walls at one site, police said. No one was hurt.
Germany has received more than 180,000 asylum applications since January, a 57-percent spike from last year, mostly from war-torn Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and Somalia but also from several Balkan countries.
Experts on Germany's far-right have noted a new mainstream character to PEGIDA, likening it to anti-foreigner movements in France, the Netherlands, Austria and Greece.
Most of the marchers are not jackbooted skinheads but disgruntled citizens, raising fears that a societal taboo against expressing xenophobic sentiments on the streets is vanishing.
The home city of the protests, Dresden, was part of communist East Germany, and the Saxony region in which it lies still lags western Germany in prosperity.
It is also here where the AfD has won seats in three state parliaments, spelling a growing challenge on the right of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats.
Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has said "there is no danger of an Islamisation of Germany -- particularly not in Saxony", where foreign-born residents make up just 2.2 percent of the population.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas said "we can't stay silent when xenophobic sentiments are being aimed at people who have lost everything and come to us seeking help.
"We must make clear that these demonstrations do not represent a majority."
- 'Looking for scapegoats' -
The protesters' stated aim is to prevent their country from being overrun by dangerous jihadists and foreigners who refuse to "integrate".
But they also cheer speakers who voice broader grievances -- against the "political elite", EU bureaucrats and the mainstream media they blame for allowing multiculturalism to "water down" their national culture.
"We are the people," they regularly chant, co-opting the phrase of the original "Monday demonstrations" that helped bring down the Berlin Wall in 1989.
They have so far avoided clashes, with police or the anti-fascist protesters, such as the "Dresden Alliance Without Nazis", who show up in equal numbers.
By contrast, another group, "Hooligans Against Salafists", have fought street battles with police that left more than 50 officers injured in October in the western city of Hanover.
Police union chairman Rainer Wendt cited the challenge posed by the new mass rallies of people "who voice this diffuse hostility, fear and resentment against anything foreign to them".
"Many of them have failed in their lives and their jobs and they project onto others their own failure... and are looking for scapegoats," he told news channel NTV.
"We need to pay careful attention to them so they're not drawn in by the right-wing Pied Pipers."