BERLIN (Reuters) - Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan cancelled a trip to Germany on Saturday after the death of 12 Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, but thousands of protesters went ahead with a rally against a decision to award him a tolerance prize.
Erdogan had been due to receive the Steiger Award in the western German town of Bochum but his office said he had called off his trip because of the soldiers' deaths in a NATO helicopter crash near Kabul on Friday.
Despite the cancellation, an estimated 22,000 people from local Alevi, Kurdish and Armenian groups who oppose the policies of Erdogan's AK party joined a pre-planned protest rally in Bochum in the industrial Ruhr region.
"Erdogan - wolf in sheep's clothing," read one banner. "Erdogan, you are and remain an anti-democrat," read another.
"We are foreigners here (in Germany) and in our own land too we are foreigners. We don't know where to go, we Kurds and Alevis," said one protester, Serpil Aydogan.
The Steiger Award association said the award was intended to mark 50 years of German-Turkish friendship.
Before the trip was cancelled, a leading German conservative had criticized the decision to award a prize for tolerance to Erdogan, citing what he called a lack of press freedom and the "suppressing" of religious and ethnic minorities in Turkey.
Alexander Dobrindt, general secretary of the Christian Social Union (CSU), which is part of Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right coalition government, said it would be more appropriate to award Erdogan a prize for intolerance.
Erdogan had not been due to meet Merkel during Saturday's trip. On previous visits he has irked Berlin with his calls to Germany's large ethnic Turkish community not to assimilate or forget their roots.
(Reporting by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mark Heinrich)