Kathrin Oertel, who has resigned as head of Pegida. Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters.
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After months of leading anti-Muslim protests in Germany, the former leader of anti-Islam Pegida movement has apologized to Muslims from spreading a campaign of hatred across Europe.
“Those still belonging to the Pegida movement need to understand that they are advocating for the wrong cause,” Kathrin Oertel – once the leader of Germany’s anti-immigrant Pegida movement, which drew tens of thousands of supporters at its peak, said in a video message quoted by The Washington Post.
“Asylum seekers are blamed for our problems in Europe and Germany. However, they’re not the root cause of our struggle,” she continued before directing her words to the immigrants she had previously condemned.
“I want to apologize to all migrants and to all Muslims among them who live peacefully and are assimilated with German society, who respect our culture and laws. They are in the vast majority and most Germans overlook this fact,” Oertel said.
The anti-Islam movement looked in disarray last January after the losing its second leader in a week when Kathrin Oertel who resigned suddenly.
Oertel, a 37-year-old mother-of-three became PEGIDA’s national figurehead after founder Lutz Bachmann resigned a week ago for posing as Hitler.
“I feel partially responsible for a campaign of hatred we caused. I want to apologize and the only thing I can do is to help resolve those tensions,” Oertel said in the statement which appeared to have been spontaneously recorded in a car.
Since October, the group “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” or PEGIDA has been holding weekly marches against Muslims and immigrants.
Pegida drew a record 25,000 marchers to its 12th rally earlier in January in Dresden where its flag-waving members held a minute’s silence for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last week.
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned of the damage that Pegida’s “xenophobic and racist slogans and placards” were having on Germany’s image abroad.
One slogan, “lying press”, is seen as harking back to the Nazi era. It was used by Adolf Hitler in 1922 and later by his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
The anti-Islam protests have been condemned by Ulrich Grillo, the president of the German Federation of Industry, for undermining the country’s interests and values.
Offering support for the Muslim community, German Chancellor Angela Merkelattended a vigil for tolerance in Berlin two weeks ago, in a clear message against rising anti-Islam, far-right group Pegida.
Late in December,2014, Merkel urged people in her New Year’s speech to help refugees fleeing conflicts, telling them to turn their backs to the “racist”, “full of hatred” anti-Muslim movement.
Advocating a new message of “world peace” the ex-Pegida leader called for dialogue.
“To achieve peace, one needs to be ready for dialogue,” Oertel said. “That’s the only way to get rid of prejudices.”
The ex-Pegida leader made clear that she was no longer fighting against Islam, but instead for “world peace,” according to her own words.
“Someone needs to start to connect people,” she said, implying that she was ready to be that person.
She also acknowledged that she had failed to draw huge support for the goal of world peace, so far. “We were even verbally attacked by opponents,” Oertel said, sounding honestly outraged.
The new comments came in stark contrast to the interviews she had given earlier this year, when she harshly attacked Muslims and other immigrants.
Speaking to CNN in January, Oertel said: “Muslims are only a tiny fraction of the population, but they’re so dominant in pushing for their demands that German culture is being pushed back.” Other supporters of PEGIDA expressed their discontent even more harshly: The Guardian quoted a middle-aged female protester last December who said that she was shocked to see that “asylum seekers in Germany have expensive mobile phones, while I cannot afford such luxury.”
The new turn in her rhetoric towards Muslims has surprised many of her former supporters.
“Before criticizing others, one should always take a step back and reflect on the actions of oneself,” Oertel advised others in her video message.
“One has to allow an individual to evolve. Many other people will have to go through this. The creation of enemy images needs to stop,” she said.
In contrast to her earlier comments in which she condemned media for not being critical enough of Islam, immigration and the rising numbers of asylum seekers in Germany, Oertel condemned the mainstream media this time for continuing to “severely criticize Muslims and their religion” and to use them as scapegoats.
Germany is believed to be home to nearly 4 million Muslims, including 220,000 in Berlin alone. Turks make up an estimated two thirds of the Muslim minority.