Protesters march in cities across Germany opposing “Islamisation” of the west, but are confronted by counter-demonstrations and public condemnation.
A weekly demonstration in the German city of Dresden has attracted a record number of people, after drawing only a few hundred in October.
Police estimate supporters at the “anti-Islamisation” march climbed to 18,000, up from about 15,000 in mid-December.
Counter-demonstrations were held in Berlin, Cologne, Dresden and Stuttgart to target racism and xenophobia and promote tolerance.
Some of the reactionary protests attracted more supporters than those organised by the group Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West, known as Pegida.
About 250 Pegida supporters marched in Cologne, opposed by a group about 10 times in number.
Counter-demonstrators in Dresden carried brooms, while anti-racism protesters in Berlin carried reactionary umbrellas.
The Pegida march in Berlin drew about 300 people but the counter-demonstration comprised about 5,000 people who marched along Pegida’s planned route towards the Brandenburg Gate.
Anti-Pegida demonstrators reportedly numbered a total of 22,000 people in Hamburg, Muenster and Stuttgart.
In Cologne, the authorities switched off the lights of the city’s cathedral as a way of telling Pegida supporters they are supporting “extremists”.
Pegida’s main march of 18,000 people in Dresden was opposed by a counter-demonstration of about 3,000.
In Cologne, authorities switched out the lights of the city’s cathedral as a way of telling Pegida’s supporters they were promoting “extremists”.
During December, a counter-rally in Cologne marched under the motto of “You are Cologne – no Nazis here”.
Its participants held banners reading “Act against the right” and “Nazis, no thanks”.
The group leading the protests has spawned new branches in other German cities, capitalising on a modern European concern over immigration.
According to a federal spokesman, the instigators of the Pegida march “are unmistakably right-wing extremists”.
Pegida gains respectability by its links to freedom demonstrations, but there are hundreds of right-wing extremists in the group’s midst – along with two established football hooligan groups, known to German police as Faust des Ostens (Fist of the East) and Hooligans Elbflorenz (Florence of the Elbe Hooligans), according to Germany’s federal office for the protection of the constitution.
Marches are also attended by members of the National Democratic Party – a far-right party that claims to be Germany’s “only significant patriotic force”.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned Germans against being exploited by extremists.
“Everyone [who attends] needs to be careful that they are not taken advantage of by the people who organise such events,” she said in Berlin before the new year.
“There’s freedom of assembly in Germany, but there’s no place for incitement and lies about people who come to us from other countries.”
Germany expects 200,000 asylum claims in 2014 – up from 127,000 in 2013 – and has more asylum seekers than any other country in the EU.