Austria’s first anti-Islam protest small, draws extremists

Demonstrators wave flags and show banners during a rally of the group Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Feb. 2, 2015. (AP Photo/Hans Punz)

VIENNA (AP) — Protesters, including a few extremists flashing Hitler salutes, demonstrated Monday against perceived “Islamization” in the first rally of its kind in Austria. But the gathering drew only about 250 people, far short of the tens of thousands who have marched in similar rallies in Germany.

Originating in Dresden last year, PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, has attracted as many as 25,000 people to marches in that eastern German city and smaller crowds elsewhere in Germany.

Organizers in Vienna also call their protest PEGIDA. They sought to temper expectations of a huge turnout before their rally saying they only expected a few hundred participants.

Both in Germany and Austria, organizers have insisted that the marches are not anti-Muslim. While there have been no reports of Nazi symbols or gestures at German PEGIDA protests, at least two demonstrators in Vienna were seen raising their hand in the Hitler salute.

The protesters were outnumbered by their opponents. About 5,000 demonstrators carrying anti-PEGIDA slogans marched through downtown Vienna, while several hundred activists blocked the PEGIDA demonstrators, stopping them from marching.

About 1,200 police, many in riot gear, were on duty. They detained several masked or drunk PEGIDA demonstrators but reported no violence.

The Green Party criticized the PEGIDA marchers, but Heinz-Christian Strache, of the right-wing Freedom Party, warned against “defaming” what he called a serious civil rights movement.