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Popcorn Protest: Who Instigated Anti-Israel Demonstration Inside Texas Church?

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"We weren’t acting on behalf of Esperanza.”

Popcorn.

That's the best way to describe the image Pastor John Hagee's deputy director of security, Chris Flores, painted for me as he retold what happened at Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, TX on Sunday. He confirmed what Hagee says in an open letter from earlier today: 11 protesters were escorted out of the sanctuary as one after another popped up to utter anti-Israel slogans during the 11 am service.

"They should be thanking us"

"We handcuffed them until we ran out of handcuffs," Flores said as he detailed how he and others on his team reacted to the situation. According to him, they followed the church's normal procedure for such disruptions: they escorted the instigators out of the sanctuary, secured them in a separate area, took their pictures and identification, called the local San Antonio police, and then had the police issue criminal trespass warnings, meaning that if the protesters ever come back they will be arrested.

“Since it is private property and Pastor Hagee owns the property, we are agents of pastor Hagee and we can execute what he wishes. He wanted the people removed," Flores said as he explained why "free speech" doesn't apply to meetings on private property.

There are competing claims by the groups about how Flores and his team handled the protesters. In the video, the protesters claim security members "assaulted" them. But Flores denied the claim.

“None of those people were manhandled by anyone who was security or a staff member of the church,” he said. What he does not deny is that some of the normally-peaceful church members were starting to become annoyed and began showing signs of reacting physically. At that point, he said, it wasn't just about removing the disturbance, but also ensuring the safety of those responsible for the disruptions.

“We helped these people," Flores said. "There were people who were trying to ... pull them. They should be thanking us.”

And the "us" includes many guys who have taken an oath to defend such instigators. Most of the security team are law enforcement officials, Flores said, many of them state troopers. In fact, Flores is a part-time police officer in the nearby city of Bandera, TX.

While nine of the protesters went on their way after the incident, Flores said two others were arrested by the San Antonio police for outstanding warrants.

Do the protesters have an affiliation?

One of the more obvious questions surrounding the outburst is, do the protesters have an affiliation? The answer is yes -- and no.

Flores and the church team did some digging after identifying the protesters and found that two of them were employees of a local Hispanic advocacy group. Both Jessica O. Guerrero and Monica Velasquez are listed as staff members at Esperanza Peace and Justice Center in San Antonio:

"In reviewing the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center facebook page it appears that at least five more of the eleven protesters participated in past protests publicized by Esperanza," Hagee writes in his letter to Beck.

Additionally, Flores noted that the video of the protest was posted on Esperanza's Facebook page, only to be removed later.

A quick look at Esperanza's donations page shows it claims to receive state and federal funding:

That would make its official involvement in such a protest more than suspect.

I called Esperanza to see if Sunday's protest was officially sanctioned by the organization. Monica Velasquez answered the phone and confirmed that she was one of the protesters. However, she denied it was an Esperanza event.

"No, Esperanza wasn't involved," she said. What about two of the protesters working at Esperanza? "That's true, but [the protest] was in no way part of the Esperanza center. We weren't acting on behalf of Esperanza."

I then asked how she was treated by the security personnel. Instead of responding to the question, she said that since Esperanza wasn't involved, and I reached her at work, we could no longer discuss the issue. That effectively ended our conversation.

Reasonable people can debate Israel

David Brog is executive director of Christians United for Israel, the organization Hagee founded and currently serves as chairman of, and he was there on Sunday. He has no problem with people voicing concerns over Israel, and he even concedes that Israel isn't a perfect country. No country is. And there's room for disagreement.

"Listen, Israeli citizens themselves debate this stuff," he explained to The Blaze. But rather than enter into a civil conversation regarding those disagreement points, he said, this group of protesters devolved into attacks.

“Reasonable people can debate some of the ways Israel has sought to defend itself against terrorism or the way they have decided to go about the peace process," he said, even citing Israel's response to Palestinian protesters on the Israeli border this past Sunday as an example. "But when you go beyond that debate and try to say that its way of defending itself is genocide, that's when you go beyond reasonable debate and into slander."

Unfortunately for the protesters, their actions might have had the opposite effect.

“This has really encouraged and energized us to share the truth about Israel and the facts about Israel," Brog said. "They're relying on the worst lies. You can raise valid critiqes aobut Israel, but when you start accusing them of aprtheid and genocide, those are the worst lies.”

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