A backlash against anti-Muslim protests in German cities saw 80 prominent national figures support a petition Tuesday calling for an end to what they see as a rising xenophobia in the country.
The move comes a day after thousands attended rallies organized by a new grassroots movement called PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. The group has been behind weekly demonstrations in the eastern city of Dresden against Muslim migration to Germnay.
Some 18,000 people, the biggest number so far, turned out in the city on Monday but similar rallies in Berlin and the western city of Cologne were heavily outnumbered by counter-protesters who accuse PEGIDA of fanning racism and intolerance.
The German tabloid Bild published a “No to PEGIDA” appeal on Tuesday, with quotes from 80 politicians and celebrities.
Former chancellors Helmut Schmidt and Gerhard Schroeder were among those taking part in the campaign. Rock star Udo Lindenberg and former German soccer team captain Oliver Bierhoff also lent their names in support.
"[They] are saying 'no' to xenophobia and 'yes' to diversity and tolerance," Bild's deputy editor, Bela Anda, wrote in a commentary on those signed up to the campaign. "We should not hand over our streets to hollow rallying cries."
It comes on a backdrop on tension over immigration in Germany. In Dresden, the PEGIDA protesters waved Germany's black, red and gold flag and brandished posters bearing slogans such as "Against religious fanaticism and every kind of radicalism.”
One poster in Cologne called for "potatoes rather than doner kebabs,” a swipe at ethnic Turks who at around three million represent Germany's largest immigrant community.
Germany is seen to have some of the world's most liberal asylum rules. The number of asylum seekers arriving in Germany, many from the Middle East, jumped to around 200,000 last year — four times as many as in 2012.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has urged Germans to shun the anti-Muslim protesters, saying their hearts are full of hatred and argued that hostility towards foreigners has no place in Germany.
In Cologne, home to a large Muslim population, there were 10 times as many counter-demonstrators as PEGIDA protesters. 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.
Cologne Cathedral and Berlin's Brandenburg Gate switched off their lights to protest against the rallies. 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."
PEGIDA has nonetheless shaken Germany's political establishment which some say could help the Euroskeptic party Alternative for Germany (AfD). But the AfD, dogged by internal power struggle, is split over how to deal with the movement.
"[PEGIDA] appeals to hollow prejudices, xenophobia and intolerance," wrote former Social Democrat Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in Bild. "A look at our past and economic sense tells us Germany should not spurn refugees and asylum seekers," he added.
Al Jazeera and wire services