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Thousands of Germans protest anti-Islam meet

Residents in Cologne say no to racist conference

German police said tens of thousands of Cologne residents took to the streets Saturday to protest an "anti-Islamization" conference of European far-right leaders.

Carrying banners saying: "We are Cologne -- Get rid of the Nazis!" protesters gathered outside the city's cathedral to demonstrate against the congress organized by the local far-right group Pro-Koeln (For Cologne).

Pro-Koeln began two days of seminars Friday during which speakers denounced an influx of Muslims to Germany and the construction of one of Europe's largest mosques in the city.

Earlier Saturday, police banned a rally organized by far-right adherents in Cologne just as it was about to begin, following clashes with thousands of opponents.

Far-right rally banned

Some 3,000 police, drafted in to control the protests and seal off part of the old city, used truncheons and water hoses to fend off violent "anti-fascist" leftist activists.

"It is a dictatorship!" said a Pro-Koeln member of the decision to ban the far-right rally.

Andreas Molzer, a member of the European Parliament and an Austrian far-right group who attended the congress, called the ban an "anti-democratic scandal."

Pro-Koeln had hoped 1,500 people would attend Saturday's rally in the city center to oppose the mosque and an "immigrant invasion" of Europe.

Those attending the congress, including far-right leaders from Belgium, Austria and Italy, protested against "Islamification" and voiced support for Europe's "Western values and Christian traditions."

The counter-protest, called by trade unions, churches and anti-racist movements, saw thousands of students, families and local business people carry signs with slogans including "No to Racism" and "Cologne is rebelling!"

The protesters disrupted the Pro-Koeln congress and ensured that fewer than 50 delegates were able to return to the meeting on Saturday morning.

Individuals fight back

Mayor Fritz Schramma, whose city council gave the green light for the construction of the huge mosque, slammed Pro-Koeln as "arsonists and racists" hiding under the cloak of a "citizens' movement" in a speech earlier Saturday.

Meanwhile, around 150 bars in Cologne stopped selling Pro-Koeln members the local Kolsch beer with some taxi and bus drivers also refusing to transport delegates to the congress.

One hotel even cancelled bookings made by "undesirables."

On Friday, several hundred opponents of the congress formed a human chain around a mosque in solidarity with the Muslim minority, which numbers more than three million in Germany, or four percent of the population.

Pro-Koeln has five elected local councilors and is chasing other official positions in the region.

Cologne, in the west of Germany on the River Rhine, is famous for its Gothic twin-spired Roman Catholic cathedral -- a UNESCO world heritage site that survived Allied air raids during World War II.