One of Germany’s most prominent Catholic churches is taking a stand against xenophobia and anti-Islam hatred, shutting off its lights this evening to protest a nearby anti-Islam rally and to express solidarity with Muslim refugees.
On Monday, thousands of demonstrators affiliated with the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West (PEGIDA) are expected to march through the streets of Cologne, Germany’s fourth-largest city. The group, which bemoans what they say is the creeping influence of Islam in Europe, has grown rapidly over the past four months, holding ever-larger rallies and demonstrations throughout Germany. Organizers of the grassroots movement, who also claim to seek the protection of Germany’s “Judeo-Christian culture,” have capitalized on simmering frustration over the recent influx of Middle Eastern refugees into Germany, many of whom are fleeing war-ravaged Syria.
But when anti-Islam demonstrators march past the ionic Cologne Cathedral — a famous national landmark — on Monday night, they will be greeted not with shouts of support, but a darkened church.
“The High Cathedral will not be a backdrop for this demonstration,” Cologne Cathedral Provost Norbert Feldhoff said, according to CNN. “As a highly visible protest against xenophobia, racism and exclusion, the outdoor lighting of Cologne Cathedral will therefore be turned off on January 5 for the period of the demonstration.”
“By switching off the floodlighting we want to make those on the march stop and think,” Cathedral Dean Norbert Feldhoff told Reuters. “It is a challenge: consider who you are marching alongside.”
The cathedral’s move is part of a growing counter-movement in Germany geared towards stifling the rise of PEGIDA and anti-Islamic hatred. The Semperoper opera house also cut its lights when PEGIDA marched through Dresden in December, and has since posted a banner on its Facebook page reading “Refugees are welcome here.” Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel openly condemned the demonstrators in her New Year speech last Wednesday.
“Do not follow people who organize these, for their hearts are cold and often full of prejudice, and even hate,” Merkel said.
Many of the country’s prominent religious leaders have also been deeply critical of PEGIDA. Cologne’s Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki and Archbishop of Aachen both used their New Year’s Eve sermons to call on Germans to show compassion towards refugees, and Protestant leader Heinrich Bedford-Strohm asked his fellow Christians to “stop with the division and let everyone participate in the community.”
In addition, Josef Schuster, the chairman of the German Council of Jews, has blasted the movement as “immensely dangerous,” adding, “Here, neo-Nazis, parties from the far-right and citizens who think that they can finally let out their racism and xenophobia are all mixed together.”
But while opposition to PEGIDA is widespread, growing frustration over the recent immigration surge — which is at its highest point in decades — is creating an unusual alliance of anti-Islam demonstrators. Although various right-wing organizations are active participants in rallies and marches, the movement also includes many middle-class Germans unaffiliated with fringe groups. An opinion poll released last week found that 1 in 8 Germans would join an anti-Muslim march if PEGIDA organized one in their home town.