BERLIN — The square around the Cologne Cathedral was plunged into darkness Monday evening after the historical landmark in western Germany shut down its lights in a silent protest of weekly rallies in Dresden against the perceived "Islamization" of Europe.
The symbolic act came as thousands of Germans demonstrated in Cologne and several other cities against the ongoing protests by the group calling itself Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, which attracted its biggest crowd yet in Dresden on Monday night.
Cologne Cathedral provost Norbert Feldhoff, told n-tv that shutting down the lights was an attempt to make the PEGIDA demonstrators think twice about their protest.
"You're taking part in an action that, from its roots and also from speeches, one can see is Nazi-ist, racist and extremist," he said on n-tv. "And you're supporting people you really don't want to support."
Only about 250 PEGIDA supporters showed up in Cologne, as compared to about ten times that number of counter-demonstrators. Similarly in Berlin, police said some 5,000 counter-demonstrators blocked about 300 PEGIDA supporters from marching along their planned route from city hall to the Brandenburg Gate. Another 22,000 anti-PEGIDA demonstrators rallied in Stuttgart, Muenster and Hamburg, the dpa news agency reported.
But PEGEIDA's main demonstration in the eastern city of Dresden, a region that has few immigrants or Muslims, attracted some 18,000, according to police. The demonstrations there have been growing from an initial few hundred in October to around 17,500 at a rally just before Christmas.
Carrying signs with slogans like "wake up" the crowd chanted "we are the people" and "lying press" as they passed television cameras on Monday.
In uncharacteristically frank words in her New Year's address, Chancellor Angela Merkel urged Germans to stay away from the Dresden rallies.
When the PEGIDA demonstrators chant "we are the people," Merkel said "they actually mean 'you don't belong because of your religion or your skin."
PEGIDA organizer Kathrin Oertel slammed the speech at the rally Monday, telling the crowd "in Germany we have political repression again."
"Or how would you see it when we are insulted or called racists or Nazis openly by all the political mainstream parties and media for our justified criticism of Germany's asylum seeker policies and the non-existent immigration policy," she asked the cheering crowd.
PEGIDA has sought to distance 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 emphasizes violence, but not against integrated Muslims living here," the group said.
It has also banned any neo-Nazi symbols and slogans at its rallies, though critics have noted the praise and support it has received from known neo-Nazi groups.
Cem Ozdemir, co-chairman of The Greens party and himself the son of a Turkish immigrant, told n-tv 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."
In Berlin, anti-PEGIDA demonstrator Ursula Wozniak said she had joined the protest because she felt the PEGIDA group was abusing Germany's democratic tradition.
"What is happening right now in Germany is just extremely shocking," she said.
PEGIDA was forced to call off its demonstration early in Cologne, after organizers reported being blocked from marching along their planned route, police said.
Other buildings, including several other churches and a museum, joined the Cologne Cathedral in shutting off their lights in support of the anti-PEGIDA demonstrators.
In Dresden, automaker Volkswagen decided to keep its glass-walled manufacturing plant dark, to underscore the company "stands for an open, free and democratic society."
Kerstin Sopke in Dresden and Dalton Bennett in Berlin contributed to this report.