At least 18,000 people in the eastern German city of Dresden have taken part in rallies opposing Islamic influence in Western nations, prompting massive counter-protests in several cities.
The record number of people that took to streets in support of the right-wing populist movement known as the “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisisation of the Occident” (PEGIDA) on Monday came despite a call by Chancellor Angela Merkel to snub such demonstrations deemed racist by many.
Organisers of the opposing demonstrations in Berlin, Stuttgart, Cologne and Dresden said they were rallying against discrimination and xenophobia to instead promote a message of tolerance.
Businesses, churches, Cologne city’s power company and others were planning to keep their buildings and other facilities dark in solidarity with the demonstrations against the ongoing protests by PEGIDA.
Over the last three months, the crowds at PEGIDA’s demonstrations in the eastern city of Dresden, a region that has few immigrants or Muslims, have swelled from a few hundred to 17,500 just before Christmas.
Police said a similar number were expected again later on Monday night.
The Dresden demonstrations have spawned smaller PEGIDA rallies elsewhere, including gatherings planned in Berlin and Cologne on Monday night where several hundred were expected to be on hand.
By contrast, about 10,000 counter-demonstrators were expected in Berlin, 2,000 in Cologne and another 5,000 in Stuttgart where there was no PEGIDA protest planned.
PEGIDA has broadened its appeal by distancing itself from the far right, saying in its position paper posted on Facebook that it is against “preachers of hate, regardless of what religion” and “radicalism, regardless of whether religiously or politically motivated”.
“PEGIDA is for resistance against an anti-woman political ideology that emphasises violence, but not against integrated Muslims living here,” the group said.
It has also banned neo-Nazi symbols and slogans at its rallies, though critics have noted the praise and support it has received from known neo-Nazi groups.
Lutz Bachmann, PEGIDA’s main organiser, refused to comment further about his party’s platform when approached by the AP news agency at a recent rally.
Cem Ozdemir, co-chairman of The Greens party and himself the son of a Turkish immigrant, told n-tv on Monday that while he, too, was against any form of extremism, “intolerance cannot be fought with intolerance”.
“The line is not between Christians and Muslims,” he said. “The line is between those who are intolerant … and the others, the majority.”