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Fred Phelps’ controversial church, Westboro Baptist Church, is using the funerals of US soldiers as a chance to not only protest the Iraq war, but also the Catholic Church.

Protesters hailing from Topeka Kansas bearing placards reading “God hates f***”, “The Pope is in Hell”, “God hates America”, and “God hates your tears” attended the funeral of Spc. Joshua Youmans, 26, who died last week due to landmine injuries incurred in Iraq as a US soldier with the 1st Battalion of the 125th Infantry.

Like the many other soldiers and marines who have been sacrificed in the war in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2004, he was accompanied to his graveside by a grieving family. He also left a widow and an infant son. Spc. Youman’s funeral Mass was held at St. Robert Bellarmine Catholic Church in Flushing – a small quiet suburb near Flint Michigan. A bagpiper played a mournful air as his casket was brought forth from the church, while Army honor guards – some openly weeping – stood by. Sgt. Mickey Tarrance, presenting the Army at the funeral said “He is one of ours”, in tribute to the fallen soldier.

Leading six women from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka Kansas was the daughter of church founder Fred Phelps. Elizabeth Phelps, bearing a placard proclaiming “Land of the Fags” and stick figures apparently engaged in an un-natural act, told Spero News, “God is punishing a defiant nation” … “God will not be mocked” and ”America has defied Him for the last time”.

The Westboro Baptist Church was founded by disbarred attorney and preacher Fred Phelps. While members of Westboro identify themselves as “Baptist”, they are not affiliated with any recognized Baptist church, and they are monitored as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Phelps’ book, The Conspiracy, co-authored by Brent Roper, is often cited by the Ku Klux Klan and the Christian Identity movement. Westboro Baptist Church opposes the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, Ms. Phelps used the occassion of the funeral to denounce the Catholic Church as an “international pedophile organization and nothing less than that.”

The church’s website commonly refers to Catholic churches as “kennels” where “dogs” worship. Elizabeth Phelps explained to Spero News that dogs are used as a Scriptural metaphor of “shamelessness” and she referred to recent court cases in which Catholic priests were convicted of sexual acts upon minors.

Asked how her theology squares with the Scriptural definition that “God is love”, Ms. Phelps said “God is not only love, he has many beautiful attributes. They are just and they are Him.”

The protesters from Kansas shouted raucous slogans while chanting “God hates America” to the tune of the well-known patriotic hymn “God bless America”.

One protester, apparently a teenaged woman, shouted “God hates you”, “Thank God for IEDs” (booby traps) and “Thank God for dead soldiers”. One protester had an American flag tied to her ankles and was seen to trample it. This was seen by many present as a direct provocation to the many veterans present.

As a counter-point, hundreds of local residents were joined by Patriot Guard Riders – a national organization of motorcycle enthusiasts. Wearing their characteristic black leather jackets and chaps, and patriotic and veterans’ symbols, these riders have joined with the Patriot Guards in response to Westboro Baptist’s protests, according the Michigan chapter president Bill Kaledas.

Kaledas, a former mayor of Garden City Michigan told Spero News that he was “extremely gratified and absolutely amazed by the turnout” of 300 plus members of his fraternity of patriotic bikers who turned out on a beautiful sunny day “to pay tribute to a hero”.

Kaledas also said “This is how we can salute our country” while also expressing pleasure that the counter-protest organized by the Patriot Riders was so successful.

According to the Patriot Guard Riders’ website, their mission as invited guests of the grieving families of fallen soldiers is: “ 1. Show our sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities. 2. Shield the mourning family and friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors. We accomplish the later through strictly legal and non-violent means.”

The many bikers whose motorcycles were festooned with American flags and military insignia bearing testimony to years of military service, were joined by elder fellow veterans representing organizations such as the Marine League, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Knights of Columbus, Vietnam Veterans of America and others. Also present was a contingent from the Ancient Order of Hibernians – an Irish Catholic patriotic organization – wearing green sport-coats while serving to keep good order. AOH member Dan Sullivan, owner of Sullivan’s Irish Corner shop in Flushing, said he was pleased with the turnout of “fellow patriots”.

Marshals for the Patriot Riders were seen asking members of the public and fellow bikers to ignore the shouts and antics of the Topeka group. “Turn your backs to ‘em”, they were heard to say.

Some bikers lofted a huge blue tarpaulin in front of the protesters while also serving as a human barrier to shield the mourners from the protesters’ placards that many of those present deemed “obscene” and “un-American”.

One of the marshals was seen consoling a sobbing woman who had approached the demonstrators.

Others who approached the protesters were kept back and told they would have to remain calm or they would be turned over to the waiting police.

Local and state police were on hand to keep the peace, but appeared largely un-necessary due to the good order encouraged by the patriotic bikers.

Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm, a Catholic, was present at the funeral and was seen emerging from the church at the end of Mass. Before the funeral cortege left the church, the protestors were seen leaving under police escort. According to reports, the protestors were escorted to an awaiting airliner at the local airport.

Coverage by the media of the Westboro Baptist protests has been heavy. Last week, the protesters launched a similar appearance at the funeral of Army private Alan A Mors in nearby Flint Township. At today’s event, TV news crews were evident, as were budding high school news reporters. In recent days, even the BBC interviewed the national president of the Patriot Riders for its World Service radio news service.

Journalism students from Kearsley High School of Flint were also on hand. Student David Ruzicka of Flint said that the Topeka demonstrators protest was “pointless, because people are here to mourn a loss.” Pointing to a banner hanging from a nearby house Ruzicka said he could agree with its message ““Faith without love is nothing” – 1 Corinthians’.

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