After church protests, experts warn extremists could exploit abortion protests


WASHINGTON (RNS) – Faith leaders, government authorities and extremism experts say they are concerned about the series of incidents at Catholic churches over the weekend, raising concerns about vandalism and the possibility for white nationalists to exploit growing tensions over abortion.

Additionally, experts warn that faith-driven right-wing extremist groups may consider showing up at other events to challenge abortion-rights supporters.

The weekend incidents followed days of protests outside the Supreme Court and elsewhere over a leaked draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito. The draft said the court would overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade, who legalized abortion nationwide.

Rumors swirled throughout the week that activists who support abortion rights were planning large protests in Catholic churches across the country. Church leaders have long stressed tradition’s opposition to abortion and argued against it, although recent polls indicate that most American Catholics support maintaining the legality of abortion in all or most cases and that an even larger majority opposes overturning Roe v. Wade.

“I’m one of the 68% of Catholics in the United States who don’t want to see Roe v. Wade overturned,” said Jamie Manson, head of Catholics for Choice, in a speech to the Supreme Court last week. His group staged its own mostly silent protest at Washington’s National Shrine Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in January, projecting pro-abortion rights images onto the church as an anti-abortion vigil was held. inside.

Jamie Manson, head of Catholics for Choice, speaks during protests outside the U.S. Supreme Court, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Washington. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Despite warnings, a series of church protests did not actually materialize over the weekend. A small group of protesters dressed in outfits inspired by ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ briefly interrupted mass at Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles before being escorted out by security. At least one Catholic church in Colorado has been vandalized, with the phrase “My body my choice” spray-painted on the church door in red. Police are reportedly investigating this bias-motivated crime, otherwise known as a hate crime.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki appeared to condemn such vandalism in an interview with reporters on Monday (May 9), distinguishing it from the peaceful protests that have taken place outside the homes of some judges in recent days.

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“We haven’t seen any violence or vandalism against Supreme Court justices – we’ve seen it in Catholic churches. It’s unacceptable,” she said. “The president doesn’t support that. .”

On Tuesday, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the USCCB Pro-Life Activities Committee, released a statement in response to the events, calling on “Catholics across the country to join us in fasting and praying the Rosary” on Friday, the Our Lady of Fatima Memorial. The bishops clarified that such prayers should be peaceful and encouraged Catholics to appeal to “civility and love”.

But it was a different protest, at New York’s Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Saturday, that drew the most attention – and raised alarm among extremism experts. The loud but peaceful assembly of abortion rights supporters outside the church was part of a long-standing counter-protest group. Normally they gather to protest against a group of Catholics who gather inside the church before marching to demonstrate during a family planning.

This weekend’s iteration, however, drew a larger-than-usual crowd of abortion-rights supporters, and a group of men gathered outside the church gates in an apparent effort to protect the church. Images of men praying the rosary were share by Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who hailed them as heroes, saying, “God bless them.

But at least one of the men – an individual wearing a blue “America First” cap and a New York Fire Department shirt – was filmed heckle the counter-protesters.

“You have no choice,” he shouted. “Not your body, not your choice. Your body is mine and you are going to have my baby!

He then added, in a softer voice: “Joke, joke.

Asked about the protest, a St. Patrick’s spokesperson referenced an interview this week with the Reverend Brian Graebe, the church’s priest, on Fox News. Graebe spoke out against the cause of demonstrators who protested in favor of abortion rights, but also appeared to distance the church from the individual in the blue cap, who was also disavowed by New York Fire Department.

“We had someone, unfortunately, kind of hijacked the event on what they tried to make it look like it was our side of the issue,” he said. “(He was saying) things that don’t represent our position or point of view at all. It’s a shame, because it makes our job much more difficult.

It was not immediately clear whether the individual was affiliated with America First, a Christian nationalist group whose affiliates sometimes call themselves “Groypers” and are led by Nick Fuentes, a right-wing provocateur widely maligned as a white nationalist. Fuentes, who is Catholic, shared images of the men praying in church three times on his Telegram page, and the heckler’s distinctive blue hat appeared to be identical to the variety worn by America First worshipers during a protest anti-vaccine in New York in November, when members also held up crucifixes and shouted a favorite song: “Christ is King!”

Alex Bradley Newhouse, deputy director of Middlebury College’s Center on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism, noted that America First worshipers — whose trademark gear was worn by participants in the Jan. 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection — have appeared at other anti-abortion events this year as well. America First flags were raised during the March for Life, a massive annual rally against abortion in Washington, DC, and another white nationalist group – Patriot Front – marched near the rallymuch to the chagrin of the organizers.

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“America First and the Groyper movement, alongside other fringe groups like Patriot Front, pose significant concern for the escalating tensions and conflict surrounding abortion rights debates,” Newhouse told RNS in an email. “America First is deeply entangled in an overlapping and increasingly violent web of extremist circles, including Christian nationalism, incel communities, white nationalist networks, and even some links to acceleration networks. . There are past indications that accelerationist and neofascist groups like Patriot Front are willing to use anti-abortion activism to try to build alliances between the movements as well.

He added, “As a result, the conditions are unfortunately ripe for the unification and escalation of these movements.”

Jared Holt, extremism expert and resident scholar at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, noted that a prominent user of Fuentes’ online streaming platform called on people to counter-protest “pro-abortion demons later this week.

“Given the longstanding perception of right-wing extremists that the anti-abortion movement is a friendly place for their cause and their ever-present desire to insert themselves into tense political debates, there is genuine concern that right-wing extremists may appear at pro-choice demonstrations with the intention of agitating and intimidating rally participants,” Holt said.

“For white nationalists in particular, opposition to abortion is a centerpiece of their worldview based on preserving and protecting the majority power of a white ruling class.”

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