Protesters, counter protesters collide at US marches 'against sharia'

HARRISBURG, Pa./SEATTLE, June 10 (Reuters) - Protesters held rallies across the United States on Saturday to denounce sharia law, the Islamic legal and moral code that organizers say poses a threat to American freedoms, but critics believe anti-Muslim hatred is behind the condemnation.

ACT for America, a self-described grassroots organization focusing on national security, staged rallies in New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver and Seattle, as well as many smaller cities. Hundreds of people pledged on social media to attend an event that ACT billed as "March against Sharia."

On the steps of the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg, barricades and a heavy police presence, including officers mounted on horses, separated about 60 anti-sharia demonstrators from an equal number of counter-protesters. Many of the latter were dressed in black masks and hoods and chanting "No Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA."

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A woman prays at a grave near the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A woman walks through a derelict section of the old town in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
An ethnic Uighur man walks down the path leading to the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A man herds sheep outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
An ethnic Uighur man looks on at the cemetery surrounding the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
Police keep watch on a road running through the Taklamakan Desert outside Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter S
Men sit at the foot of a dune in the Taklamakan Desert outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter SEARCH "XINJIANG PETER" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "WIDER IMAGE" FOR ALL STORIES.
A man approaches a mosque to open it for evening prayer in the old town in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
Flag-festooned poles stand over a grave in the cemetery surrounding the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
Ethnic Uighurs sit near a statue of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A man sleeps on the train from Hotan to Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
Shopkeepers line up with wooden clubs to perform their daily anti-terror drill outside the bazaar in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
Men negotiate over the price of sheep in the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A man rests under a poster showing Chinese President Xi Jinping in the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A child sleeps as a riot shield leans on a stall at the bazaar in Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A man delivers a sheep to the mosque at the tomb of Imam Asim in the Taklamakan Desert outside the village of Jiya near Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
Portraits of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong, Soviet state founder Vladimir Lenin and German philosopher Karl Marx are displayed outside an antique shop in the old town in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A police officer talks to men in a street in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A man has his moustache trimmed by a street barber in the old town in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A police officer checks the identity card of a man as security forces keep watch in a street in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 24, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
Men install a CCTV camera in a shopping street in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A woman looks at fabric in the bazaar in Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
The locked door of a neighbourhood mosque is seen in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. Many smaller neighbourhood mosques have been closed by the authorities in favour of larger more centralised places of worship, locals and an analyst said. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
A man stands in an alley in the old town in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A man arrives at the Id Kah Mosque for morning prayers in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
An ethnic Uighur man talks on the phone in front of the Id Kah Mosque in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
The locked door of a neighbourhood mosque is seen in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 24, 2017. Many smaller neighbourhood mosques have been closed by the authorities in favour of larger more centralised places of worship, locals and an analyst said. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
The locked door of a neighbourhood mosque is seen in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. Many smaller neighbourhood mosques have been closed by the authorities in favour of larger more centralised places of worship, locals and an analyst said. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
The locked door of a neighbourhood mosque is seen in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 24, 2017. Many smaller neighbourhood mosques have been closed by the authorities in favour of larger more centralised places of worship, locals and an analyst said. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
Men watch as old buildings are torn down in Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
An ethnic Uighur woman stands in the door of a bakery in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 22, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A man walks along a street at night in the old town of Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
A woman walks past a stall selling fabric at the bazaar in Hotan, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 21, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Peter 
The locked door of a neighbourhood mosque is seen in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. Many smaller neighbourhood mosques have been closed by the authorities in favour of larger more centralised places of worship, locals and an analyst said. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
The locked door of a neighbourhood mosque is seen in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. Many smaller neighbourhood mosques have been closed by the authorities in favour of larger more centralised places of worship, locals and an analyst said. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
The locked door of a neighbourhood mosque is seen in Kashgar, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China, March 23, 2017. Many smaller neighbourhood mosques have been closed by the authorities in favour of larger more centralised places of worship, locals and an analyst said. REUTERS/Thomas Peter
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The atmosphere was tense but the protest went off with no violence and only one arrest, police said.

More than a dozen men belonging to the anti-government Oath Keepers were on hand, invited by ACT to provide security. Most of them carried handguns.

Chris Achey, 47, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, said he did not hate Muslims but believes that much of Islam is incompatible with Western culture.

"The Constitution is the law of the land," he said. "We have to be careful with who we let in the country."

On its website, ACT described sharia, which covers many aspects of Muslim life including religious obligations and financial dealings, as incompatible with human rights. It said sharia justifies the oppression of women and homosexuality, and advocates female genital mutilation.

But critics say the organization vilifies Muslims and has repeatedly equated Islam with extremism. In their view, the rallies are part of a wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment fueled by President Donald Trump, who called for a ban on Muslims entering the country during his election campaign.

Molly Freiburg, 33, of Philadelphia, was one of the counter-protesters but not part of the larger group clad in black.

"America is not in danger from sharia law," she said. "This manifestation at the Capitol is actually a way to make our Muslim neighbors feel uncomfortable."

A representative for ACT for America could not be reached for comment.

In Seattle, about 75 anti-sharia protesters were outnumbered by counter-protesters at a rally that was moved from Portland, Oregon. Tensions are running high in Portland after a man yelling religious and racial slurs at two teenage girls on a commuter train fatally stabbed two men who tried to stop him.

Talbot Sleater, a 62-year-old construction foreman, said that the Seattle protest was the first of the kind that he had attended. A Briton who moved to the United States, he said he had decided to go after recent attacks in his home country.

"People are being run over in the street with trucks and little kids are being blown up," Sleater said, referring to recent attacks in London and Manchester. "I don't want that to happen here."

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STERLING, VA - JUNE 1:Tasneem Moiz, 8-months, plays in the beard of her maternal grandfather, Khalid Iqbal, at the home of Iqbal's daughter, Sadaf Iqbal, on June 1, 2011, in Sterling, VA. Ibrahim Moiz, a Muslim American of Indian descent, and Sadaf Iqbal, a Pakistani-American, are raising three daughters ranging in age from 4-years-old to 8-months-old. Moiz also acts as a mentor to a couple of teenagers, trying to bridge the gap between the ways of the teen's foreign-born parents and U.S. customs.(Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
STERLING, VA - MAY 31: Ibrahim Moiz, 2nd from L, reads to his middle daughter, Maryam, 2, as his other daughters, Tasneem, 8mo, and Asiyah, 4, entertain themselves at Moiz's home on May 31, 2011, in Sterling, VA. Moiz, a Muslim American of Indian descent, and his wife Sadaf Iqbal, a Pakistani-American, are raising three daughters ranging in age from 4-years-old to 8-months-old. Moiz also acts as a mentor to a couple of teenagers, trying to bridge the gap between the ways of the teen's foreign-born parents and U.S. customs. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
STERLING, VA - MAY 31: Ibrahim Moiz, C, leads his two older daughters, Maryam, 2, L, and Asiyah, 4, to their bedroom near bedtime at their home on May 31, 2011, in Sterling, VA. Moiz, a Muslim American of Indian descent, and Iqbal, a Pakistani-American, are raising three daughters ranging in age from 4-years-old to 8-months-old. Moiz also acts as a mentor to a couple of teenagers, trying to bridge the gap between the ways of the teen's foreign-born parents and U.S. customs. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
STERLING, VA - JUNE 1: Sadaf Iqbal, R, receives her daughter, Maryam, 2, with open arms at the family's home on June 1, 2011, in Sterling, VA. Behind them is a wallhanging that bears a famous quote from the Qur'an called the 'Verse of the Throne' done by a Chinese Muslim master calligrapher named Haji Noor Deen. Iqbal, a Pakistani-American, and her husband, Ibraham Moiz, a Muslim American of Indian descent, are raising three daughters ranging in age from 4-years-old to 8-months-old. Moiz also acts as a mentor to a couple of teenagers, trying to bridge the gap between the ways of the teen's foreign-born parents and U.S. customs. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
STERLING, VA - MAY 31: Ibrahim Moiz, R, gives his daughter, Asiyah, 4, a high-five for using proper manners at the snack table as Moiz's wife, Sadaf Iqbal, L, works on the computer at their home on May 31, 2011, in Sterling, VA. Moiz, a Muslim American of Indian descent, and Iqbal, a Pakistani-American, are raising three daughters ranging in age from 4-years-old to 8-months-old. Moiz also acts as a mentor to a couple of teenagers, trying to bridge the gap between the ways of the teen's foreign-born parents and U.S. customs. (Photo by Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the country's largest Muslim advocacy group, urged Americans to participate in one of several local educational events being organized in "a peaceful challenge to Saturday's hate rallies."

It also warned Muslims to take extra precautions against potential violence over the weekend.

Anti-Muslim incidents rose 57 percent last year, including a 44 percent jump in anti-Islamic hate crimes, CAIR said in a report released in early May.

Oath Keepers said on its website that it was "answering the call to defend free speech against those who would use terrorist violence or the threat of violence to shut it down."

The Southern Poverty Law Center says Oath Keepers is "one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the United States," organized around a "set of baseless conspiracy theories."

Refuse Fascism, a coalition of activists advocating confrontational tactics to oppose what it calls the Trump "regime," said it would show up at the rallies "to counter the xenophobic hatred and lies, defy intimidation and drown it out." (Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles and Frank McGurty in New York; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Marguerita Choy, Mary Milliken and Chizu Nomiyama)

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