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Germany

Salafists and PEGIDA in Wuppertal: A perfect storm of protests

The urge to yawn can be contagious, although it's hard to say why. Watching rival protests unfold Saturday in Wuppertal, one could almost say the same about the urge to demonstrate. DW's Gabriel Borrud was there.

"We're here for justice," said an attendee at the Salafist rally - one of three different public protests on Saturday in the small city of Wuppertal in western Germany. Salafists adhere to a radical sect of Islam that posits being rooted in an original and unadulterated interpretation of the faith.

"We're here for our country. Don't mess it up!" urged PEGIDA head Lutz Bachmann at a competing demonstration. The organization he founded, whose name translates to "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the Occident" (PEGIDA), is now known

well beyond Germany

for its anti-Islam demonstrations.

Meanwhile, a group of locals came out to oppose extremism and neo-Nazi thinking with a message one demonstrator summed up as, "Our city is colorful."

Police in Wuppertal on Saturday

All forms of police were present in Wuppertal to keep apart the PEGIDA and Salafist groups

For an outsider, it's hard to see what these statements have to do with each other. They center on a series of debates that have come to the fore in Germany in recent months - about inclusion, tolerance, the character of the nation and the place of Islam - both radical strains and otherwise - within it.

A total of around 3,000 people were expected to participate in the three rallies. In the end, far fewer were on hand: Estimates ranged up to 800 attendees for the PEGIDA rally, while the Salafist event drew just a fraction of that.

Clashes among police and protesters were reported at both the Salafist and the PEGIDA protests, but they didn't rise to the level some had feared - and that had been witnessed at an

anti-Salafist rally in Cologne last October

or during previous demonstrations by Islamist groups in Cologne and Bonn.

The police ultimately stopped the PEGIDA demonstration once fighting broke out.

Wuppertal Demonstrationen von Salafisten und Pegida

Around 1,000 officers - in differing capacities - were out on Saturday

Even before the protests began, it was evident that Wuppertal was bracing for a tense afternoon. About a dozen police vans blocked the entrance to the center of town, where people can board the city's big attraction - a suspension railway.

"We've never seen anything like this," said a policeman who had been tasked with answering questions from citizens baffled by the day's events.

Hundreds of those claiming to be defending Germany and the Western world against radical Islam convened less than 150 meters away from the police "Info Team."

In an effort to limit violence, the protesting groups were kept far apart in the city's old town. The Salafist group was gathered some two kilometers away, and crossing between the two protests required going through numerous police check points.

A man speaks to a crowd from the back of a van

A sparse crowd came to listen to a speech at the Salafist rally in Wuppertal

'Always to blame'

The topics of justice and blame were a focal point at the Salafist gathering. Blocked on all sides of a tall brick church, those in attendance were addressed by a man in a white robe inside a rental truck.

He shouted to the crowd of about 80 people about how the Koran and the Bible alike have violent passages. He addressed Muslims imprisoned around the world and spoke of injustice.

"We Muslims are always to blame!" the speaker called out at one point, followed by repeated chants in the crowd of "Allahu Akbar!"

Those chants were met with forceful calls in German of "Shut your trap," emanating from a group that had been barricaded off by police in an effort to prevent them from disturbing the Salafist demonstration. Officially affiliated with none of the three groups registered for protests on Saturday, they responded to a question from police by asserting they are just "normal people."

Grudging support

The right to demonstrate in Germany is nearly untouchable. Anchored in the constitution, it can only be denied under exceptional circumstances.

"As a policeman, I hate that these demonstrations were allowed," said an acting police spokesman when asked whether Saturday's demonstrations should have been approved. "But as a democrat, I have to support it."

Demonstrators with balloons in Wuppertal

Demonstrators carried balloons as a sign of tolerance at the third demonstration held in Wuppertal on Saturday

Meanwhile, those in Wuppertal who came out to send a message against right-wing and other forms of extremism surpassed attendance estimates. Similar to Saturday's PEGIDA rally, just under 1,000 people turned up.

"I was pretty happy that PEGIDA was never popular [ín Wuppertal]. And that's why I'm here," said Marc, one of those who took part in the event organized by the Wuppertal Alliance against Nazis.

"[PEGIDA and the Salafists] can go home for all I'm concerned. I want our city to stay colorful," said Jana, another attendee.

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