Milos Zeman, the President of the Czech Republic, attended a rally against refugees and Islam in Prague on Tuesday (17 November) on the anniversary of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, which peacefully toppled Communism in then Czechoslovakia.
Nearly 70% of Czechs oppose the arrival of refugees in their country, according to a recent survey by the Czech Academy of Sciences.
Few asylum seekers have chosen to stay in the largely secular European Union and NATO member nation of 10.5 million, with a majority heading to wealthier Germany and other western EU states.
The UN recently criticised a Czech detention centre for migrants and refugees as “degrading”.
President Milos Zeman, a former Communist, told the thousands gathered at Tuesday’s event organised by the xenophobic Bloc Against Islam movement that people opposed to Islam and refugees should not be “branded” Islamophobes, fascists or racists.
In the past, Czech presidents were chosen by parliament, but in 2013 Zeman become the first one to be directly elected by the people since the fall of Communism.
He has the power to veto legislation, as well as to appoint judges and the country’s central banker.
The rally he attended was one of dozens held across the country focused mostly on Europe’s migrant crisis and held amid hiked security in the wake of the Paris terror attacks that left at least 129 people dead in the worst-ever such event on French soil.
Zeman’s supporters held banners showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel in prison over her open door policy for migrants and refugees. Some chanted “Pegida!” in support of Germany’s xenophobic anti-Islam movement.
Lukas, an engineer from the western city of Pilsen holding a Czech flag, told AFP he had come to support Zeman as he felt “threatened by what is happening in western Europe.”
“We have to choose… and not say ‘OK, come over,’ without thinking. We have found out that among migrants there are people who are dangerous for Europe,” he said.
Irena Baburkova, an antiques dealer from the western town of Klatovy, said the migrant crisis was “being managed by someone who wants Europe to fall into chaos and problems”.
Andrew Stroehlein, European media director of Human Rights Watch, tweeted “What would you say if your head of state shared a stage with an advocate of concentration camps & gas chambers?” On the photo embedded in his tweet besides Zeman appears Martin Konvi?ka, head of the hate groups “We Don’t Want Islam in the Czech Republic” and the “Anti-Islam Bloc”.
What would you say if your head of state shared a stage with an advocate of concentration camps & gas chambers? pic.twitter.com/lksD9u8OMH
— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) November 18, 2015
In stark contrast to Zeman, left-wing Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka used the Velvet Revolution anniversary to thank volunteers helping refugees.
“Our anger must turn against (radical Islamists), not refugees who are often escaping religious or ethnic violence spread by murderous fanatics,” Sobotka added.
More than 700,000 migrants have arrived in Europe this year, most from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, in the continent’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
The influx has caused tensions between EU members and has given a boost to far-fight, anti-immigration groups across the continent.