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FILE PHOTO: Protesters hold placards as they demonstrate against the anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) becoming part of the German lower house of parliament Bundestag for the first time, in Berlin, Germany October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN (Reuters) - German civil rights groups are mobilising against the newly elected far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party and other more hardline groups, vowing to avert the even stronger rightward lurch seen in neighbouring countries.
The AfD secured almost 13 percent of the vote in the Sept. 24 national election, making it the third largest party in the Bundestag, or lower house of parliament, and the first far-right party to win seats in more than half a century.
Exit polls showed that 60 percent of AfD voters cast a "protest vote", with many angry at Chancellor Angela Merkel's 2015 decision to allow in over a million mainly Muslim migrants.
Experts say the party's rise is also part of a global trend that has brought right-leaning parties or leaders to power in Poland, Hungary, and most recently, Austria.
Germany's mainstream parties have said they will not work with the AfD at a national level but it is represented in 14 out of 16 state legislatures - prompting activists to step up their resistance.
Thousands of protesters are expected in the eastern city of Dresden on Saturday when the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement that once drew crowds of 25,000 celebrates its third anniversary.
PEGIDA - the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West - has seen dwindling crowds since early 2015, with AfD absorbing some backers into more political activities.
Hundreds of supporters of both groups rallied side-by-side in Dresden a week before the election.
"We've seen a strong and growing movement of people resisting the AfD in recent months in big cities, in small towns, and now we need that movement on a national scale," said Nora Berneis, an organiser with Aufstehen gegen Rassismus, or Standing up against Racism.
The group, which has 40 separate chapters around the country, is planning a large protest in the northern city of Hanover on Dec. 2 when the AfD meets for a party conference.
It also helped organise a march in Berlin last weekend before the new parliament convened.
Ali Can, a 23-year-old university student who was born in Turkey but grew up in Germany, helped initiate the Berlin rally.
"History has taught us what hate and racism can lead to," Can told the crowd in a reference to 6 million Jews, Sinti, Roma, homosexuals and others killed by the Nazis during World War Two. "But today 12,000 people showed that any attempt to divide us as a society will only bring us closer together."
Christoph Schott, with the global activist group Avaaz, said more than 500,000 people had also signed an open letter to the AfD, rejecting the party's "xenophobic" and "racist": messages.
"This is our country too, and you are not 'taking it back'," said the letter - published online and in Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper before the Berlin protest in a reference to the AfD's rallying cry.
The AfD denies it is racist, but has railed against what it calls the "Islamisation of Europe".
Germany has spent hundreds of millions of euros on civic education since World War Two, and the government doubled funding for projects aimed at combating right-wing, left-wing and Islamist extremism to over 100 million euros in 2017 alone.
Trade unions, non-profit organisations, religious groups and others also offer similar workshops and training.
Beginning with Allied "re-education" efforts after World War Two, Germany has developed the most intense civic education programme in Europe. Some credit it with keeping support for far-right parties lower than in neighbouring countries.
But Axel Ruppert with the European Network against Racism said the AfD's aggressive rhetoric was pressing the boundaries of "acceptable" discourse and hate crimes were rising.
Police data showed a 14-percent rise in right-wing extremist violent acts in 2016, and anti-Semitic crimes rose 4 percent to 681 in the first eight months of 2017.
The AfD's entry into parliament has triggered a long-overdue dialogue about what went wrong during the unification of eastern and western Germany in 1990, said Michaela Glaser with the German Youth Institute, a non-profit research association.
"One silver lining ... may be that things that were hidden before have become visible. And only if something has been articulated can it be addressed," she said.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Alison Williams)