Crowds gather for anti-Islam demonstration outside Phoenix mosque

Crowds gather for anti-Islam demonstration outside Phoenix mosque
07:07 30 May 2015
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(Please, note: Paragraph 2 contains language that may offend readers)

About 75 protesters, some armed, gathered on Friday in Arizona outside a mosque for an anti-Islam demonstration featuring cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, weeks after a similar event in Texas came under attack from two gunmen, Reuters reported.

The event outside the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix, targeted in part because the two Texas gunmen had worshipped there, was organized by an Iraq war veteran who posted photos of himself online wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "F*ck Islam" (edited) on it and waving the U.S. flag.

"This is in response to the recent attack in Texas," organizer Jon Ritzheimer wrote on his Facebook page, suggesting demonstrators should come with weapons in case the First Amendment "comes under much anticipated attack."

Outside the mosque, amid a high police presence, demonstrators shouted condemnations of Islam, calling it a "religion of murderers," while about 130 counter-protesters assembled, some chanting, "Love your neighbor."

More than 900 people responded on the event's Facebook page that they would take part in the demonstration, and by 6 p.m. local time (0100 GMT on Saturday) police were expanding their presence in anticipation of growing crowds. Officers with riot helmets and gas masks formed a cordon for several blocks.

Caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, which many Muslims view as blasphemous, have been a flashpoint for violence in Europe and the United States in recent months where those displaying or creating such images have been targeted by militants.

Meanwhile, anti-Muslim groups have been active in the United States, buying ads and staging demonstrations characterizing Islam as violent, often citing the murderous brutality of Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The Phoenix mosque targeted on Friday has condemned such violence, and held a series of sermons at Friday prayers last year by an imam who criticized militant Islamist groups like Islamic State, al Qaeda and Nigeria's Boko Haram.

The president of the center urged worshippers not to engage with the demonstrators.

"We should remind ourselves that we do not match wrongness with wrongness, but with grace and mercy and goodness," Usama Shami told worshippers during Friday afternoon prayers.

Phoenix police planned to have a presence throughout the neighborhood where the mosque is situated, said spokesman Sergeant Trent Crump.

In January, gunmen killed 12 people at the Paris office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in anger at the magazine's cartoons featuring the Prophet, and a similar attack was foiled in Texas on May 3.

The pair of gunmen who opened fire near Dallas outside an exhibit of cartoons featuring Mohammad were shot dead by police without killing anyone. Leaders of the Phoenix Muslim community confirmed both gunmen had attended the Phoenix mosque targeted in Friday's demonstration.

Todd Green, a religion professor at Luther College in Iowa who studies Islamophobia, said that the brutal acts committed by Islamic State and other militant groups have colored many Americans' impressions of Muslims.

"Almost two-thirds of Americans don't know a Muslim," Green said. "What they know is ISIS, al Qaeda, and Charlie Hebdo."

U.S. officials are investigating claims that the Texas gunmen had ties to the Islamic State, but said they had not established a firm connection.

The Department of Homeland Security has been in touch with state and local law enforcement authorities, and was monitoring the situation in Phoenix, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

"Even expressions that are offensive, that are distasteful, and intended to sow divisions in an otherwise tight-knit, diverse community like Phoenix, cannot be used as a justification to carry out an act of violence, and certainly can't be used as a justification to carry out an act of terrorism," he told reporters.

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