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Far Right Numbers Swell As 10,000 Germans March Against 'Extreme Islam'

09/12/2014 11:34 GMT | Updated 24/12/2014 18:59 GMT

German extremists converged on Monday night for one of the biggest far-right rallies the country has seen in years, with so-called "anti-Islam" marches now becoming a near-weekly occurrence.

Thousands descended on downtown Dresden in a march organised by a group calling itself "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West", known by its German acronym PEGIDA.

But the 10,000-strong demonstration was matched almost to the man by counter-demonstrators, who came out in solidarity with the city's minority population, though the state of Saxony, where Dresden is located, has comparatively few Muslims.

Huffington Post Germany reported fireworks thrown in the direction of counter-protesters.

Dresden protests

The PEGIDA protests drew little attention when they began just two months ago, with barely two hundred attending. But numbers have swollen significantly, even though speakers at the march attempted to distance themselves from the praise they have garnered from neo-Nazi groups, including the National Democratic Party.

Organisers claim the demonstration is against violent Islam and illegal immigration, not against the religion or its people.

"We love our nation, but are against socialism, so we are not Nazis," founder Lutz Bachmann has said previously. Bachmann has been accused by the local paper of being a former drug dealer, and admitted he had "a past" during a speech at the rally last night, intimating he would step aside if it proved costly for the movement.

Experts say the group has managed to attract people who wouldn't normally associate with the far right, by banning any neo-Nazi symbols or slogans and trying to present themselves as a mainstream movement.

On PEGIDA's Facebook page, organisers urged supporters to "bring your friends and neighbors and let us show the counter-demonstrators that we are not anti-immigrant and not anti-Islam."

Related demonstrations attracted fewer demonstrators, with about 600 protesters and 500 counter-protesters showing up at a rally in Berlin, and about 450 protesters and 700 counter-protesters at another in Duesseldorf, police said.

Student groups, political parties, Dresden's Jewish community and the city's mayor were among those who organised Monday's counter protest.

Nora Goldenbogen, chair of the Jewish community told HuffPost DE: "We Jews know".

"In this heated discussion many people forget that Dresden and Saxony have profited from migration and asylum for centuries," said mayor Helma Orosz.

A demonstration against Islamic extremism in the western city of Cologne erupted into violence in October, with 49 police officers injured.