BERLIN - A record 17,000 anti-Islamic protesters rallied for their tenth demonstration in as many weeks Monday in eastern Germany, celebrating the rise of their far-right populist movement by singing Christmas carols.
Germany has for weeks grappled with the emergence of the "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" or PEGIDA, whose ranks in the city of Dresden have swelled rapidly from just a few hundred in October.
About 4,500 counter-demonstrators marched through the city under the slogan "Dresden Nazi-free", warning that there was no space for racism and xenophobia in the country that perpetrated the Holocaust.
Most PEGIDA followers insist they are not Nazis but patriots who worry about the "watering down" of their Christian-rooted culture and traditions. They often accuse mainstream political parties of betraying them and the media of lying.
Braving cold and wet weather, they gathered outside the historic Semperoper concert hall for their pre-Christmas recital. Police put their numbers at about 17,500, up from the previous high of 15,000 a week earlier.
The management of the opera house signalled its distaste by turning the building's lights off and flying flags outside that read: "Open your eyes", "Open your hearts", "Open doors" and "Human dignity is sacrosanct", the first line of the national constitution.
The Protestant bishop of Saxony state, Jochen Bohl, said the PEGIDA followers, by singing Christmas carols, were seeking "to exploit a Christian symbol and a Christian tradition" for political purposes, German news agency DPA reported.
Anti-PEGIDA rallies grow
Former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, of the centre-left Social Democrats, called for concerned citizens to launch a "rebellion of the decent" against the anti-foreigner movement, saying "that's the kind of public reaction we need now".
PEGIDA, born in a city that was part of communist East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, has spawned copycat groups in western areas which have failed so far to attract similar crowds.
Smaller clone groups rallied Monday in the western cities of Bonn, Kassel and Wuerzburg, but they only drew up to 200 followers each and were all vastly outnumbered by counter-demonstrations that drew 20,000 nationwide.
Police reported no major violence but said eight people were temporarily detained after confrontations in Kassel, reported DPA.
The biggest anti-PEGIDA march was held in the southern city of Munich, where at least 12,000 rallied under the banner "Make space -- Refugees are welcome".
"We have space for people of different skin colour, ethnic origin and mother tongue," city mayor Dieter Reiter told the crowd.
"We have space for all religions and believers: for those who go to the mosque on Fridays, who go to the synagogue on Saturdays, or to church on Sundays, but also for those who prefer to just stay home."
Politicians from all major parties have been stunned by the emergence of the right-wing nationalists who vent their anger against what they consider a broken immigration and asylum system.
The movement has emerged at a time when Germany, Europe's biggest economy, has become the continent's top destination for asylum seekers, and the world's number two destination for migrants after the United States.
The influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and several African and Balkan countries has strained local governments, which have scrambled to house the newcomers in old schools, office blocks and army barracks.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has cautioned Germans against falling prey to any form of xenophobic "rabble-rousing", while other lawmakers have deplored the new "pin-striped Nazis".