As thousands of protesters flood the streets in Germany weekly, German bishops warned against branding all anti-immigration demonstrators as racists. At the same time, they condemned all forms of racism and xenophobia and underlined how important it is to help welcome refugees.
Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West, or Pegida, has held a march in Dresden every Monday since October. By Christmas, numbers had shot up from 200 protestors to 17,500. The Pegida movement has attracted a mixed crowd of followers, from neo-Nazis to middle-class Germans, who fear that Muslim immigrants are overrunning the country.
Before Christmas, Dresden Bishop Heiner Koch pointed out that a not-inconsiderable number of the demonstrators were worried and afraid and said they had a legitimate right to take to the streets.
"While we remain committed to the basic right of asylum for refugees from war areas and victims of political persecution, we must ask ourselves what drives such a large number of people on to the streets every Monday and not tar them all with the same brush by a priori labeling them right-wingers," he said.
"We really are faced with Islamic rhetoric about Islamic conquest," said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops' conference and a member of Pope Francis' Council of Cardinals. "You only have to look on the Internet to realize that." He added that the two sides, the extreme right-wingers and Islamist extremists, "spur each other on."
Bishop Hans-Jochen Jaschke, who is in charge of interreligious affairs in the German bishops' conference, also warned against branding all Pegida marchers as racists. He called for an unemotional, objective debate. The Pegida protests are at the forefront of a widespread movement in the German population, and whoever condemns their fears as racist encourages polarization, he said, adding that it's the task of level-headed forces like the church to promote dialogue between the different social groups.
Opposition to Pegida grew over the Christmas holidays, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel sharply criticizing the movement in her New Year's address. When Pegida announced it would organize marches in other large German cities like Cologne and Berlin, opposition groups began to form.
The provost of Cologne Cathedral, Norbert Feldhoff, made the decision to switch off the world-famous cathedral's floodlights on Monday so it could not be used as a backdrop for the march. Asked if he had made this decision to stress that it was "lights-out for facists," a slogan used by Pegida's opponents, Feldhoff said it is important to take a more nuanced view.
"The Pegida movement is a very mixed gathering," he said. "It includes well-meaning, worried citizens, including many good Catholics, but also, of course, populists and right-wingers. Some of the emails I received after announcing my decision to switch off the floodlighting were quite definitely racist and have no place in our democracy."
But, he continued, there are "well-meaning citizens" among the marchers, "people who genuinely feel that they are being overwhelmed by immigrants. It is a dangerous mix, and German history should make us sit up and take note of what dangerous mixtures can lead to. The churches and the political parties are now called on to take people's fears seriously. Society, politics and the churches must talk to these people who feel so anxious and insecure."
The police counted 18,000 marchers, the highest number to date, Monday in Dresden, but in Cologne and Berlin, Pegida was forced to call off its marches in the face of thousands of opponents.
The apostolic nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterović, said he thought it important to involve the German public in the refugee debate to a greater extent.
"The cause of the problem is that people all over the world are being persecuted and the majority of them are Christians. This is a very difficult situation in which we must seek dialogue with Islam," he told katholisch.de.
Between January 2014 and July 2014, Germany took in 67,400 asylum-seekers, more than the U.S. and twice as many as France. 2014 will probably prove to be a record year with the highest number of refugees taken in by Germany in 20 years.
[Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Austrian correspondent for the London Catholic weekly The Tablet.]