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Texas Muslims decry Trump policies at capitol rally in Austin

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - With arms locked and voices joined to sing the U.S. national anthem, more than 1,000 people rallied at the Texas Capitol on Tuesday against Trump administration immigration policies and travel restrictions aimed at seven mostly Muslim countries.

Texas Muslim Capitol Day, designed to show Muslims how the state government in Austin works, has been held for more than a decade when the legislature meets every other year for its regular session.

This year's event held increased significance after Republican President Donald Trump last week imposed the travel restrictions, and a Texas Republican lawmaker held a meeting over what he sees as Islamic threats.

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"We are witnessing the unprecedented normalization and legalization of discrimination. We will not stand by and let this happen," Democratic state Representative Victoria Neave told the crowd, which included people waving signs reading, "Muslims, We've Got your Back."

Crowds chanted: "No ban. No Wall," in reference to proposals to ban Muslims and Trump's plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

As speakers railed against Trump policies they said run counter to American democracy, a handful of protesters said Islam was a threat against the United States and praised the president for protecting the country.

Houston resident Cheryl Walker came with a handgun strapped to her thigh to denounce the rally.

"I am against Muslims being in our country because if you are a Christian, they believe they have to kill you," she said.

There are hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Texas and many at the rally were worried about travel after Trump issued a directive that put a 120-day hold on allowing refugees into the country, an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria and a 90-day bar on citizens from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

"There has been Islamophobia boiling up for a while, but the ban makes Muslims feel more alienated and afraid of what their futures look like," said Sadaf Siddiqui, an optometry student from Houston.

A day before the travel restrictions that prompted protests at numerous U.S. airports, Republican state Representative Kyle Biedermann held a security conference to guard against what he called "radical Islam terrorism."

Biedermann, who last year made headlines when he dressed as a "gay Hitler" for a costume party fundraiser, this month sent a survey to Muslim leaders demanding a response about their beliefs on issues such as Islamic sharia law. Civil rights groups condemned the survey, saying it promoted Islamophobia.

Biedermann issued a statement on Tuesday saying he opposed discrimination based on religion, race or gender.

During the 2015 Muslim Day event, a Christian activist seized the microphone and said, "I proclaim the name of the Lord Jesus Christ over thecapitolofTexas. I stand against Islam."

On Tuesday, hundreds locked arms to prevent interference and cleared a path for the Texas Muslims entering the Capitol.

"I am here to protect my Muslim brothers and make sure that they have the same rights and liberties as every other American," said Hart Viges, who served with the U.S. Army in Iraq.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and David Gregorio)