PHOTO GALLERY: German anti-Muslim protesters spark fierce debate over immigration

Some 18,000 people, the biggest number so far, turned out in Dresden on Monday but similar rallies in Berlin and the western city of Cologne were heavily outnumbered by counter-protesters.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral
Anti-Muslim protesters in Dresden
A man in a military uniform takes part in a grass-roots anti-Muslim movement demonstration in Berlin
Protesters rally against anti-Muslim immigrant group PEGIDA in Dresden
Protesters rally against anti-Muslim immigrant group PEGIDA in Dresden
Participants of a grass-roots anti-Muslim movement demonstrate in Berlin
German Justice Minister Heiko Maas  protests an anti-Muslim demonstration in Berlin
Germans protest an anti-Muslim demonstration in Berlin
DRESDEN - Protesters marched in several German cities on Monday against higher levels of immigration and what they see as the growing influence of Islam, in defiance of an appeal from Chancellor Angela Merkel to spurn rallies she views as racist.
The rallies, organized by a new grassroots movement known as PEGIDA, or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, have become an almost weekly event in the east German city of Dresden in recent months.
Some 18,000 people, the biggest number so far, turned out in Dresden 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 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 has some of the world's most liberal asylum rules, partly due to its Nazi past. 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.
In her New Year address last week, Merkel urged Germans to shun the anti-Muslim protesters, saying their hearts were full of hatred.
"We need to ... say that right-wing extremism, hostility towards foreigners and anti-Semitism should not be allowed any place in our society," Merkel said on Monday in the eastern town of Neustrelitz.