DRESDEN, Germany (Reuters) - More than 17,000 people took part in Germany’s largest anti-immigrant rally to date on Monday in the eastern city of Dresden, gathering to sing Christmas carols and listen to speakers complain about immigrants and asylum-seekers.
The rally by a fast-growing grass-roots movement calling itself PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, was its 10th and largest so far.
“Germany is not a land of immigration,” PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann told the cheering crowd, which waved Germany flags and chanted criticism of media it accuses of biased reporting.
Bachmann started PEGIDA in October with an appeal on social media in Dresden to protest plans to add 14 centers for about 2,000 refugees locally. Demonstrators reject charges they are far-right extremists or neo-Nazis.
Monday’s rally took place in front of Dresden’s famous Semper Opera house in the city’s historic center.
A counter-demonstration of 4,000 people tried to disrupt the PEGIDA rally, which grew from a previous record of 15,000 a week ago and has embarrassed the political establishment with claims that Germany is being overrun by Muslims and other immigrants.
Justice Minister Heiko Maas has called PEGIDA a disgrace for Germany.
PEGIDA’s demands have attracted support from some on the far-right as well as ordinary Germans alarmed by a sharp rise in refugees, many fleeing conflict in the Middle East. The rallies have spread across Germany even though Dresden, with a tiny immigrant community, remains the movement’s hotbed.
Instead of their usual marches through the nighttime streets, the rally remained at the crowd sang Christmas classics as “Stille Nacht” (Silent Night) and “Oh, du froehliche”. The Semper opera turned off its lights to protest the rally.
The number of asylum-seekers in Germany has surged to some 200,000 this year, more than any other western country, due in part to an influx of Syrians.
Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; Editing by Angus MacSwan