Crowds gather for anti-Islam demonstration outside Phoenix mosque
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 anti-Islam slogan 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.