COLOGNE: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was to open one of Europe’s largest mosques in Cologne on Saturday as he wrapped up a controversial visit to Germany, with police deploying in force to manage the rival rallies.
The inauguration will mark the closing event of his three-day state visit, aimed at repairing frayed ties with Berlin after two years of tensions.
Erdogan left the German capital after a breakfast meeting with Angela Merkel, their second talks in two days.
While both leaders signalled their interest in a cautious rapprochement, the German chancellor stressed that “deep differences” remained on civil rights and other issues.
Erdogan then travelled to the western city of Cologne where several thousand critics took to the streets, protesting everything from Turkey’s record on human rights and press freedom to its treatment of minority Kurds.
On the bank of the Rhine, demonstrators waved banners reading: “Erdogan not welcome”.
Cansu, a 30-year-old student of Turkish origin, came from Switzerland to join the protest.
“I want to be the voice of people who can’t take to the streets in Turkey. Because they have been arrested, killed or otherwise suppressed. Erdogan thinks anything that differs from his opinion is terrorism.”
Tomas, a German student, turned up in a white suit splattered with fake blood. He and several others carried a giant banner that read “Dictator. Mass murderer”.
“We are here to show Cologne does not want you,” the 22-year-old said.
Erdogan supporters meanwhile gathered at the Cologne Central Mosque, an imposing dome-shaped building commissioned by the shadowy, Turkish-controlled Ditib organisation.
Cologne police cordoned off a large area around the mosque for safety reasons, but thousands of Erdogan supporters spilled into closed-off side streets, eager for a glimpse of the Turkish leader.
Many waved Turkey’s red and white flag or held up pictures of Erdogan, with the crowd occasionally breaking into cheerful chants of “Who is the greatest? Turkey!”
“Erdogan is very popular because he has done a lot for his people,” said Yusuf Simsek, 42, a computer technician with Turkish roots.
Semra, a 41-year-old kitchen worker, agreed.
“I don’t care about the criticism. He’s doing everything that’s right for Turkey and we are fully behind him.”
Both Cologne mayor Henriette Reker and the state’s premier Armin Laschet declined to attend the mosque ceremony.
The snubs echoed the lukewarm welcome the Turkish leader received at a state dinner on Friday evening hosted by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, which several opposition politicians boycotted. Merkel also skipped the banquet.