The AfD was set up three years ago and has been buoyed by Europe’s migration crisis and the arrival of more than a million mostly Muslim migrants in Germany last year. The party has no presence in the federal parliament in Berlin but has members in half of Germany’s 16 regional state assemblies.
Opinion polls give AfD support of up to 14%, presenting a serious challenge to Angela Merkel’s conservatives and other established parties in the run-up to the 2017 federal election. Other parties have ruled out a coalition with the AfD.
In a raucous and highly emotional debate on the second day of a party congress, many of the 2,000 delegates cheered calls from the podium for measures against “Islamic symbols of power” and jeered a plea for dialogue with Germany’s Muslims.
“Islam is foreign to us and for that reason it cannot invoke the principle of religious freedom to the same degree as Christianity,”Hans-Thomas Tillschneider, an AfD politician from the state of Saxony-Anhalt, said to loud applause.
Merkel has said on many occasions that freedom of religion is guaranteed by Germany’s constitution and that Islam is welcome in the country.
As many as 2,000 leftwing demonstrators clashed with police on Saturday as they tried to disrupt the AfD conference. About 500 people were briefly detained and 10 police officers were slightly injured, a police spokesman said.
The chapter of the AfD manifesto concerning Muslims is titled “Islam is not a part of Germany”.
In Sunday’s debate, one delegate’s call for greater understanding drew jeers and loud whistles.
“I call for a differentiation and urge everybody to visit their local Muslim communities and initiate a dialogue,” said Ernst-August Roettger, a delegate from the northern city of Lüneburg.
He was speaking in support of an amendment that called for acceptance of everybody’s religious freedom and for the party not to regard all Muslims as extremists. Delegates rejected the amendment.
Germany is home to nearly four million Muslims, who make up about 5% of the population. Many of the longer established communities came from Turkey to find work, but those who have arrived over the past year have mostly been fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Last month the head of Germany’s Central Council of Muslims likened the AfD’s attitude towards his community to that of Adolf Hitler’s Nazis towards the Jews.