German Chancellor Angela Merkel vows to rally for tolerance against anti-Muslim group

BERLIN (AFP) - Germany's new anti-Islamic movement was set to march Monday, hoping to gain numbers after the bloodshed in Paris, as Chancellor Angela Merkel said she would join a Muslim community rally for tolerance the following day.

Leaders of the so-called "Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident" (PEGIDA) have asked participants in their latest march late Monday to wear black armbands and observe a minute's silence for "the victims of terrorism in Paris".

Euphemistically dubbed "evening strolls" by the group, the latest of the marches in the eastern city of Dresden was expected to ride a wave of fear and revulsion at the killings of 17 people in France last week to beat last week's record attendance of 18,000.

However counterprotests have been gaining momentum, with 35,000 people turning out Saturday in Dresden against the right-wing populist group.

Merkel said she and several members of her cabinet would on Tuesday attend a vigil organised by Muslim groups in Berlin to denounce extremist violence and social division.

"Germany wants peaceful co-existence of Muslims and members of other religions," Merkel told reporters after talks with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, adding that Tuesday's vigil would send "a very strong message" .

She added that German President Joachim Gauck would speak at the Muslim community rally.

The latest PEGIDA demonstration comes after a firebombing early Sunday against a tabloid in the northern city of Hamburg that had reprinted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed from the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo.

It was at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo that gunmen first struck, kicking off France's three days of terror.

German police were investigating whether there was a link between the show of support for the French weekly and the arson attack but let two suspects detained Sunday go for lack of evidence.

As a security precaution, the eastern city of Leipzig, which will see its first PEGIDA-style demonstration on Monday, has banned marchers from displaying Mohammed cartoons, which have been seen at other events.

With tensions running high, political leaders even urged PEGIDA to call off the event, saying it had no right to whip up hatred against Muslims in the name of solidarity with terror victims.

"If the organisers had a shred of decency they would simply cancel these demonstrations," Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the mass-selling daily Bild.

"It is simply disgusting how the people behind these protests are trying to exploit the despicable crimes in Paris." The head of Merkel's Bavarian sister party, Horst Seehofer, echoed the call.

At a time "when the whole world is mourning and in shock over the events in Paris", PEGIDA leaders should at least "for the time being" cancel their rallies, Seehofer said.

The demonstrations, though largely limited to Dresden in former communist east Germany, have shaken the reunified country's image of itself as open to the world and tolerant.

Germany, Europe's most populous nation with around 80 million people, is home to about four million Muslims, three-quarters of whom are of Turkish origin.

In a survey conducted several weeks ago and released last Thursday, 57 percent of non-Muslim Germans said they felt threatened by Islam, four points higher than in 2012.

And 61 per cent said Islam had no place in the West, according to the study released by the Bertelsmann Foundation think-tank.

Meanwhile PEGIDA has said on its Facebook page that the killings at Charlie Hebdo in Paris confirmed its own views.

"The Islamists, which PEGIDA has been warning about for 12 weeks, showed France that they are not capable of democracy but rather look to violence and death as an answer," it said.

"Our politicians want us to believe the opposite. Must such a tragedy happen here in Germany first???" Activists have announced plans for PEGIDA spin-offs in Austria and Scandinavia, while other European far-right groups have voiced support for the German movement.

However, even as copycat marches are planned in other German cities, counterdemonstrations against PEGIDA have been growing in strength.

Many of the 35,000 who hit the streets of Dresden Saturday carried signs reading "I am Charlie but not PEGIDA" borrowing from the solidarity slogan with the Paris victims.

And during offshoot PEGIDA marches last Monday, landmarks such as Cologne cathedral and Berlin's Brandenburg Gate dimmed their lights just as the protesters gathered.