Germany demonstration
German counter-protesters are expected to march against PEGIDA, a group that resists Islamic immigrants coming to Germany. Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke

Thousands across four German cities plan to counter-protest against growing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim marches that have drawn thousands to the streets, reports the Associated Press. Most of the anti-immigration protesters are part of Pegida, or Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West, a group that has attracted far-right extremists and nationalists.

Counter-protesters were expected to hold rallies Monday in Berlin, Stuttgart, Dresden and Cologne. The Cologne Cathedral, one of the largest in the world, announced on Friday it would turn off all of its normally bright exterior lights in protest of the Pegida marches there, according to the Independent.

Pegida began drawing attention in October, when their marches numbered in the hundreds. The group has now held multiple rallies in the thousands, attracting an eclectic group of Germans with differing political stances. The common thread among them is the strong opposition to immigrants coming to Germany for asylum from troubled areas of the world.

Dresden, in the formerly Communist east, has seen some of the largest Pegida rallies in Germany. More than 15,000 gathered there on Dec. 15, and around 17,500 on Dec. 22, when many sang Christmas carols. Strong grassroots social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook are credited with the group’s meteoric rise.

Around 10,000 anti-Pegida marchers are expected in Berlin, and about half that many in Stuttgart. It is unclear how many will gather in Dresden, which has been a hub of ultra-right-wing activity. Small groups in the hundred have gathered there during past Pegida rallies to counter-protest.

Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Germans in her New Years Address to reject Pegida’s stance and welcome those coming to Germany for safety from war-torn countries like Syria and Libya. She denounced Pegida’s leaders of fomenting “prejudice, coldness and hatred.”

Merkel herself has resisted calls from within her own conservative coalition to overhaul immigration laws to fast-track asylum reviews and deport those refused asylum almost immediately, according to the National Post. Bavaria’s Christian Social Union, which is part of her coalition on the national level, wants the expedited reviews for applicants from what it considers “safe” countries or those who have already applied for asylum elsewhere in Europe.