October 03, 2016 - 5:24 AM
DRESDEN, Germany - Hundreds of far-right protesters shouted abuse at Chancellor Angela Merkel as German leaders gathered in the eastern city of Dresden on Monday to celebrate the anniversary of the country's reunification 26 years ago.
The protesters shouted "Merkel must go" and "traitor," as the chancellor left the city's Frauenkirche church after a morning ecumenical service. Merkel has been harshly criticized in some quarters for her welcoming refugee policy, and Dresden has been a centre of the criticism.
Despite the tense mood, Merkel called on Germans to enjoy unification day, which is a public holiday in the country, and to be grateful for the achievements of the last 26 years.
"For me personally, but also for most people in Germany, this is still a day of joy, a day of thankfulness," said Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany.
The chancellor acknowledged there are "new tasks, new problems" in the country and said it was important for Germans respond "with mutual respect and acceptance of very different political views, and that we also find good solutions."
Germany society has been polarized by the influx of some 890,000 asylum seekers last year. Although many fewer migrants have entered the country in 2016 — an estimated 210,000 people so far — parties on the far right have called for an immigration cap.
Merkel has repeatedly refused limiting the number of asylum seekers coming to Germany. In the face of heavy opposition against her migrant policy, she recently made it a priority to ensure that migrants who are not granted asylum in Germany be returned to their home countries more swiftly.
Dresden's national unification celebrations took place amid tight security after two homemade explosive devices were set off outside a mosque and a conference centre in the city last week and three police cars were destroyed in an arson attack Sunday.
Dresden, the state capital of Saxony, is home to the anti-Islam group Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West. Known by its German acronym PEGIDA, the group has become a magnet for far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Activists on the left also planned rallies for Monday.
The German government published a report last month warning that there had been an increase of racist and far-right attacks in eastern Germany, calling the violence "a big threat for the development of the society and economy."
Germany was divided into a capitalist west and communist east after the end of World War II. The country reunified on October 3, 1990.
Grieshaber contributed from Berlin.
News from © The Associated Press, 2016