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Christians at Phoenix protest stand between Muslims and anti-Islam crowd

Protesters gather outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix on Friday. Associated Press/Photo by Rick Scuteri

Christians at Phoenix protest stand between Muslims and anti-Islam crowd

PHOENIX—What was billed as both an anti-Islam and pro-free speech rally in Phoenix turned into a peaceful, but heated, religious debate Friday night.

The first evening of the hottest weekend so far this summer kicked off with a group of several hundred motorcyclists rallying outside the Islamic Community Center in central Phoenix. The protest was dubbed the “Freedom of Speech Rally Round 2,” copy-catting a similar event in Texas earlier in May organized by activist Pamela Gellar, who encouraged attendees to draw cartoons of Mohammed in an affront to the Islamic commandment not to make images of their prophet. Two gunmen opened fire outside of that event in Garland, Texas, and were killed by police. They were suspected followers of radical Islam. One had been investigated earlier for reportedly trying to join a militant group in Somalia.

Those gunmen were from Phoenix and were believed to have worshipped at the Islamic Community Center. While the tension Friday electrified the crowd, it never erupted into physical violence. Still, attendees were rattled, and loud noises—motorcycles revving or the pounding of several news choppers overhead—seemed to make everyone jump.

Countering the motorcyclists was an equally large group of anti-protest-protesters, many of them evangelical Christians from a handful of nearby churches. Adam Estle, executive director for the nonprofit organization Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, organized the “Love Your Neighbor” rally to stand between the motorcyclists and the mosque.

“These are my neighbors,” said Estle, who also lives in Phoenix and attends Orangewood Nazarene Church, next door to the mosque. He said when he heard about the rally, he contacted his friend, Usama Shami, who heads the mosque. Shami asked Estle if he could organize a group of people to show love and support for the Muslim community that worships there.

“I’d like to think they would do the same thing for us, were the tables turned,” Estle said.

Though he acknowledged the fear some had of coming to the rally so close to the Texas shooting—“I have a wife and four small kids,” he said—Estle said the gospel is bigger than that.

“Jesus said to love our neighbor,” he said. “Jesus also challenges us to love our enemies. We’re here to love our Muslim neighbors but we’re also here to love our neighbors across the way, who obviously are scared.“

The rally was heated, and not just by the Phoenix sun. One of the protesters held a megaphone, yelling “I feel sorry for you … you’ve been fed a lie. You’re supporting a religion you don’t even believe in.”

As more protesters gathered on each side, the yelling took on a new tone. Instead of focusing on Islam and the mosque, the motorcyclists started directing most of their chants to the Christian counter-protesters. One man, holding a notebook on which he’d sketched a cartoon of Mohammad, beckoned the other side: “I have reason on my side,” he yelled. “Why do you believe in Jesus?”

“This isn’t sending the right message at all,” said Billy, who attended the rally with his girlfriend Nina, both in black T-shirts with the words “[Expletive deleted] Islam” in large white lettering on the front. Somber-faced, with a scruffy beard and covered in tattoos, Billy stood with Nina on the side of the motorcycle group but down the street a bit, away from the crowd. He talked about his fear that Muslims wanted to bring Sharia law to America and said he came to the rally to support the rights of American citizens, which he said Muslims don’t respect.

“As individual people I’ve met many of them that are cool,” Billy said. “But as a group, they’re not.” But he admitted the rally had veered off course.

“They’re putting a lot of … religion versus religion and that’s not what it was supposed to be,” he said. “This isn’t about Christianity versus Islam.”

There was a heavy police presence, and as the yelling got louder and both sides pushed toward each other, the officers created a human barrier between them. The evangelicals wore mostly blue shirts, a planned fashion statement meant to have a calming effect, according to the event’s Facebook page. They held signs that said “Love Your Neighbor.”

Others on the counter-protest side weren’t part of the Christian group. Some held signs that said “[Expletive deleted] ISIS not Islam” and started the chant “Nazis Go Home,” which was soon met with “USA!” from the other side. Many didn’t appear to be religious, but could be heard yelling, “You hate what you don’t understand!” and “Peace for everyone!” An older couple with a guitar led anyone who would join in a rendition of “I’ve Got Peace Like a River.”

At times, it felt as though angry members on both sides of the street were begging their counterparts to give them a reason to strike. Arizona is an open-carry state, and several of the motorcyclists wore camouflage vests holding multiple guns and ammunition. Others held large semi-automatic weapons, like AR-15s, over their shoulders. But no one fired a shot, and police made no arrests.

Behind the counter-protestors, three Muslim women stood quietly in their head coverings, wide-eyed and taking in the scene. “It’s sad,” said one girl, Samantha. “But everyone has … the rights to speak. It’s part of our constitution.”

Samantha’s friend, Nadine, felt the same: “I feel bad for the other side. It’s a lot of hate to have in your heart.”

Maria Baer

Maria Baer is a freelance reporter who lives in Columbus, Ohio. She contributes regularly to Christianity Today and other outlets and co-hosts the Breakpoint podcast with The Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

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