Pegida, the German-based anti-Islamification group that has been branded racist by German chancellor Angela Merkel, held its first UK rally in Newcastle upon Tyne on Saturday as the movement spreads to other European countries.
But while about 400 Pegida supporters waved the Union Jack flag with Rule Britannia blaring from loudspeakers, their march was overshadowed by a counter-protest just 100 yards away.
Police kept the two camps separate — about 2,000 people gathered in support of multicultural group Newcastle Unites, carrying banners with logos such as “Smash Pegida” — but at one point violence broke out when a small group of men carrying swastika-style banners appeared in the no-man’s-land ringed by police. Police said there were five arrests.
The Pegida protesters were overwhelmingly white, male and middle-aged or older while the Newcastle Unites supporters were diverse in age with a substantial presence from Newcastle’s minority communities.
The German group, whose acronym stands for Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamification of the West, held a demonstration of 25,000 people in Dresden last month but has been hit recently by resignations amid fears it was being hijacked by rightwing extremists. Its former leader Lutz Bachmann quit after a picture of him posing as Hitler was posted on Facebook.
Matthew Pope, Pegida’s UK spokesman, said the group was negotiating with the Metropolitan Police to hold a rally in London in late March.
He said Newcastle was chosen for the first UK Pegida event because it was not a flashpoint for racial strife — precisely the point made by the counter rally, whose attendees, in an allusion to Newcastle United Football Club’s black and white striped kit, chanted: “We are black, we are white, we are united.”
Addressing the Pegida rally, Mr Pope said: “We can’t lie down and let our culture be lost; this is the first of many Pegida rallies. We are so proud the British community has come out to support us.” He said the UK government was allowing sharia courts. “It’s allowed these Muslims to create their own police system.”
Paul Weston, leader of a group called Liberty GB, told the Pegida crowd: “Although there are moderate Muslims in this area, Islam is not a religion of peace.
“We are not here today to incite hatred,” he said. “We are here to tell the truth about this disgusting ideology masquerading as a religion.”
Speaking afterward, Mr Pope insisted Pegida UK was not a political party. “It’s a public awareness campaign,” he said, adding that it was not against immigration. “We have an issue with a small element who are trying to undermine our culture and nation.”