PHOENIX - Hundreds of Valley residents gathered at the Islamic Community Center in Phoenix Friday night, some as part of a "Freedom of Speech" rally and others to tout the tolerance of all religions.
What started as a few supporters around 5 p.m., turned into hundreds by the protest start time at 6:15 p.m., with both sides passionately vocalizing their views and waving signs in the air.
As the two sides argued and yelled, dozens of police officers formed a line between them and kept them separated. There were no reports of injuries or arrests at the protest, which lasted a couple of hours and gained attention around the country on social media. Phoenix police estimated about 500 protesters showed up, roughly 250 on each side.
HOW DID THIS START?
Jon Ritzheimer, a former U.S. Marine and vocal activist against Islam, organized a "Freedom of Speech" rally on Facebook in response to a shooting outside a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest earlier this month in Texas.
Drawings of the Prophet Muhammad are deemed insulting to many followers of Islam and have sparked violence around the world.
In the Texas incident, two Phoenix men, both alleged ISIS sympathizers, drove to Texas and opened fire outside the event, injuring a security guard before being shot and killed by local authorities.
"Everyone is encouraged to bring American Flags and any message that you would like to send to the known acquaintances of the 2 gunmen. This Islamic Community Center is a known place that the 2 terrorist frequented," a description of the event posted on Facebook read.
As the public, supporters, protesters and the media learned about the planned rally, concerns within the community grew. The organizer encouraged attendees to bring weapons in case counter protesters became violent.
In response, the Council on Islamic-American Relations' Arizona chapter held a press conference Friday morning, denouncing the rally's organizer and supporters. CAIR-AZ also warned worshipers to stay away from the mosque over fears the event could turn violent.
Imraan Siddiqi, president of the board of directors at the community center, said it was sad that a press conference had to be called to "state the obvious that we here in 2015, in America, are reminding Americans that bigotry is a bad thing."
"We have to counter hate with love or the haters win," said Siddiqi.
By 6:30 p.m., both sides had drawn huge crowds, separated only by a line of Phoenix officers. Some attendees arrived with American flags and guns, while others bore signs promoting peace and acceptance among religions.
Phoenix police, the Islamic community, and federal agencies have been following the rally events and put in place security measures to ensure it remains safe, including installing additional security cameras.