DRESDEN - A weekly anti-Islam march in the German city of Dresden attracted its largest-ever crowd Monday in what its organizers say was a tribute to the French terror victims.
At least 25,000 turned out for the rally sponsored by a group calling itself Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA).
Some marchers held up signs denouncing Islam, foreigners, and multiculturalism.
Many in the crowd carried French flags or placards saying ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (I Am Charlie) - mirroring the millions of people who had gathered in cities across France just a day before in a show of unity.
“I’m here tonight because I sympathize with the French people and am sorry for what happened to them. I also fear that the same can happen here to us.“
Anti-Islam rallies were held in other German cities Monday, attracting much smaller crowds and also counter-protests.
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas condemned PEGIDA for exploiting the French terror strikes to promote xenophobia.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who attended the huge anti-terrorism rally in Paris Sunday, declared Monday that "Islam belongs to Germany."
Merkel and several Cabinet members plan to attend a vigil at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate Tuesday organized by Germany's Central Council of Muslims.
She said the vigil will send “a very strong message” that "Germany wants peaceful co-existence between all religions."
The self-styled anti-Islamization protests began in October with a few hundred people. Since then, thousands have occupied the center of Dresden almost every Monday night, echoing anti-government protests staged before the fall of communism in East Germany in 1989.
“These strolls that we have on Monday nights encourage political discussions on topics that are largely ignored,” said Hans-Holger Malcomess of the Alternative for Germany Party.
The array of flags and Christian iconography revealed the wide range of causes drawn to Pegida. Several banners urged ‘No war with Russia.’ While organizers insist the group has no far right links, VOA spoke to several protestors who voiced neo-Nazi rhetoric.
“Only those that show the true colors of the Third Reich - like I am on my jacket tonight, I’m wearing black, white and red - stand for an unoppressed Germany,” said demonstrator Roland Siedler.
Chancellor Merkel was depicted on banners wearing a Muslim headscarf. She has accused the Pegida marchers of having ‘hatred in their hearts’.
Counter-demonstrators heckled the marchers throughout the two kilometer route. Lines of riot police separated the two sides.
“I'm here tonight to demonstrate against xenophobia and against things that - especially for Dresden - that I simply can’t support as there is absolutely no threat posed by Islam,” said 'No-PEGIDA' demonstrator Richard Lorenz.
At the rally’s finale, organizers claimed the Pegida movement is spreading across Europe, including France, Austria and Switzerland.
Despite Monday's high turnout, the Pegida protestors have been outnumbered by counter-demonstrations urging tolerance.
But with numbers swelling on both sides, it is a divide that Germany’s politicians are having to confront.
Some information in this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.