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

love-your-neighborPHOENIX—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.