Cologne, Germany — Members of Cologne's large Muslim community have joined the chorus condemning a string of assaults on women on New Year's Eve that have shocked Germany. But some are also voicing concern that pointing the finger of blame at Muslims in general — and North African immigrants in particular — is unfair when most migrants are law-abiding and the full facts of what happened on the night remain unclear.
In Ehrenfeld, a multi-ethnic neighborhood where streets are lined with colorful Turkish grocery stores and halal butchers, few can believe that those who allegedly carried out the assaults amid the crowds ringing in the New Year may share their religion.
Police said Wednesday that 121 women have filed criminal complaints for robbery and sexual assault — including two allegations of rape. They said the attackers were among a group of some 1,000 men described as being of "Arab or North African origin" who gathered in front of the Cologne's main train station and gothic cathedral that night.
Although there is little solid information so far on who committed the assaults, the incident has put a spotlight on Chancellor Angela Merkel's welcoming stance toward those fleeing conflict, and has been seized on by Germany's far right, which opposes most forms of immigration.
"It's really sad what happened," said one woman wearing a Muslim headscarf, who only gave her last name, Ozap. She rejected the suggestion by some German politicians that the Muslim attitudes toward women might have played a role in the attacks.
"Everywhere it says that this has something to do with Muslims. What I read and learned in the Quran is completely different.
"I've been here for 30 years myself and I've never seen anything like this," she added.
Hassan Akdogdu, a 34-year-old businessman and a second-generation Turkish immigrant, agreed. He accused police of not doing enough to prevent the attacks.
"It's nothing to do with religion," he said. "Lack of respect for women isn't a religious problem, as a Muslim I can say that."
Akdogdu also questioned whether the issue might have triggered greater outrage because of an ongoing debate in Germany over how to integrate the nearly 1.1 million refugees who came to the country last year, many of them Muslims from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Refugees are an important political issue at the moment but I don't believe, I don't want to believe, that it was really refugees," said Akdogdu. "Harassment and suchlike isn't just something you need to talk about with refugees, but with everyone."
The assaults have dominated headlines in recent days. German media — initially reluctant to report on the incident last week while many of the details were still hazy — have published grim details and sharp editorials calling for tough justice.
Several media outlets on Thursday published an internal report by German police describing how women had to run through mobs of drunken men outside Cologne train station.
The report compiled by an unidentified senior federal police officer recounts how "several thousand male persons with a migrant background" hurled fireworks and bottles into the crowds of revelers who had gathered in front of Cologne Cathedral to celebrate New Year.
"Women had to literally 'run the gauntlet' of very drunk men," the report said. "In the course of the operation numerous crying and shocked women/girls approached officers and told them of sexual assaults by male migrants/groups. Unfortunately it wasn't possible to identify them anymore."
Federal police spokesman Jens Floeren confirmed the authenticity of the report, but noted that it represented one officer's "subjective assessment" of the incident three days after it happened.
Merkel described the assaults as "repugnant criminal acts that ... Germany will not accept," and said changes to the law and increasing police presence may be examined.
"The feeling women had in this case of being at people's mercy, without any protection, is intolerable for me personally as well," she said in Berlin. "And so it is important for everything that happened there to be put on the table."
Murat Ornek, the German-Turkish manager of a hair salon in Ehrenfeld, said he was worried both by the assaults and by the possible backlash against Muslims.
"To be honest many people don't talk about it, they live their lives as if nothing happened. But many people are afraid too, that things will escalate here too," he said.
Muslims elsewhere in Germany also voiced anguish over the attacks, especially on social media.
Among members of a Facebook group for Syrian refugees in Germany, some called for the perpetrators to be strongly punished and deported immediately.
Riham al-Kousaa, a Palestinian-Syrian journalist, warned that it would take much longer to erase prejudices than the time it took to create them.
The attackers in Cologne, she wrote for the magazine Cicero, hadn't understood "that they didn't just harm the victims and themselves. They harmed thousands who left their homes because of precisely such crimes."
Police said investigators working with video footage have identified 16 young men — mostly of North African origin — who may be suspects and are working to determine whether they committed any crimes. Authorities have not released names for most of the men.
While officials have cautioned against casting suspicion on refugees in general, Merkel said "we must examine again and again whether we have already done what is necessary in terms of ... deportations from Germany in order to send clear signals to those who are not prepared to abide by our legal order."
In Muelheim, another Cologne neighborhood with a distinct immigrant presence, German-Tunisian lawyer Mehdi Labidi said there was no excusing the attacks — but questioned why police had identified the perpetrators as North African before making any arrests.
Labidi said some of his refugee clients acknowledged being at the train station on New Year's Eve, but denied committing assaults. "They told me there were other men there too, Italians, Albanians, Kurds, Iraqis and Turks. And the number of 1,000 is completely exaggerated."
"Germany is a tolerant country but I find this really strange that an entire ethnic group is being branded as criminals," he added. "If far-right extremists attack North Africans then we are going to file a criminal complaint against police for incitement."