VIENNA – PEGIDA, the anti-Islam movement born in Germany, drew hundreds of supporters and counterdemonstrators to the streets of Vienna when it held its first march in neighboring Austria on Monday.
With 1,200 police officers deployed in Austria’s capital as a precaution, around 250 marchers carrying Austrian flags and chanting “we are the people” faced off against a like number of protestors shouting “down with PEGIDA.”
Ranks of police in riot gear separated the two camps. A police spokesman said there had been no incidents or arrests.
Earlier, thousands of people had marched in a protest over PEGIDA.
The rally followed violent demonstrations on Friday by left-wing activists protesting an annual ball in Vienna that traditionally draws right-wing figures.
Religious sensibilities are on the rise in Austria. The government has proposed requiring standardized German-language translations of the Quran and prohibiting foreign funding of Muslim organizations on its soil in a draft law aimed in part at tackling militants.
The initiative follows alarm over official estimates that about 170 people from Austria have joined up with Islamist militant forces fighting in the Middle East.
The sudden rise of PEGIDA — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West — in Germany rattled that country’s political establishment by staging rallies that brought up to 25,000 onto the streets of Dresden.
But it has fallen into disarray after five of its founding members dropped out to start a rival movement.
Georg Immanuel Nagel, a 28-year-old philosophy student from Vienna and spokesman for the Austrian offshoot, told newspaper Die Presse he wanted an end to the “appeasement policy” for the roughly half-million Muslims who live in Austria, a traditionally Roman Catholic nation of 8.5 million.
He called for legislation banning “Islamism” so that people promoting Sharia — or Islamic — law could be punished, just as Austria outlaws glorification of Nazism.
Nazi Germany in 1938 annexed Austria, whose 200,000-strong Jewish population was wiped out in the Holocaust.
Heinz Christian Strache, leader of the far-right opposition Freedom Party that is neck and neck in opinion polls with the centrist coalition parties, has expressed support for PEGIDA, which he has called a “serious civil rights movement.”
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