Dearborn, Mich., is Henry Ford's hometown, and all that he represented-inventiveness, assembly-line productivity, hard work, and equal opportunity for the average guy-took root here, just 10 miles west of downtown Detroit. In addition to building factories and a world headquarters in Dearborn, Ford took a persistent interest in the town, which today has a population of about 98,000. His largesse improved schools, hospitals, and even built swimming pools.
But last month's arrests of four Christians attending the city's 15th annual Arab International Festival brought unwelcome notoriety to Ford's city, already reeling from the unrelenting downturn in the U.S. automotive industry. It laid bare the social and legal upheaval afoot in Middle America, especially in cities where Muslim-dominated immigrant communities more recently have taken hold.
Police arrested three men and one woman, all members of a group called Acts 17 Apologetics, at the festival on June 18, and charged each with breach of peace. The four claim that police arrested them based on complaints from other festival-goers-presumably Muslims-and not because they broke the law. They say they had come to the festival to proclaim the love of Jesus for Muslims.
"We didn't approach anyone, we waited for them to approach us," said Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim from Virginia and an Acts 17 leader. "They came up to us accusing us but did engage in civilized conversation. We were talking very amicably and enjoying the conversation," he said in a videotaped discussion of the arrests made the following day.
David Wood, another Acts 17 leader who lives in New York City, said the group was "falsely accused" of being disruptive even though members of the group did not hand out literature, yell, or argue with other festival attendees. In contrast, he told me, Qureshi found himself in a crowd of 20 Muslims "who were yelling at him and harassing him."
Also arrested were Paul Rezkalla, a student at New York University, and Negeen Mayel, an 18-year-old California resident and convert from Islam whose parents immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan. The two were videotaping the events when police arrested them, and say they did not have any interaction with the crowd. "I was more than 100 feet away from the others when I was suddenly surrounded by police, told to stop recording, and they took the camera," Mayel said. In addition to the breach of peace charge, police also charged her with disobeying an officer. "I'm 18 years old and I have no record and now I'm being hauled off for holding a camera."
Both Wood and Qureshi have a history of drawing attention at the festival, which covers 14 downtown blocks and attracts 300,000 visitors from around the world, according to Dearborn's American Arab Chamber of Commerce. A 2009 YouTube posting of the pair's interaction with Muslims and security officers has received nearly 2 million views. They were not arrested then but that incident, according to eyewitnesses at this year's festival, is why some may have complained to police when they showed up again with video cameras.
But it doesn't explain why they would be handcuffed, a procedure Wood said is "shocking . . . but this is what we mean by Sharia in the U.S. Certain elements [of Islamic law] are being enforced . . . Christians are second-class citizens, you cannot proclaim the gospel to Muslims, you cannot disagree with Islamic law or say anything against Muhammad."
Other Christians were quick to say that they participated in the Arab festival without incident. For the second year in a row, Christian author and popular speaker Josh McDowell had a booth there, and has handed out over 3,000 autographed books this year, he told me. "I must've answered 300 questions from Muslims, and not one person raised their voice, not one person argued." McDowell said local pastors and the Chamber of Commerce invited him, and he asked a local committee to review the materials he handed out beforehand. He said he understood the local restrictions: "When you have a festival in a few blocks of a downtown area with 300,000 going through, you've got to have a few rules."
Haytham Abi Haydar, a Lebanese-born pastor who has had a ministry in Dearborn since 1999, told me the presence of "four or five video cameras" is "intimidating" in the crowded streets. Haydar has run a booth next to McDowell: "We have not had any problem with the authorities, and we find the organizers hospitable and most attendees polite."
Haydar said Arab Christians who live in Dearborn don't appreciate the disruption brought by outsiders with no ongoing ministry in the city: "They come here once a year and create a problem we have to deal with the rest of the year. It is a waste and leaves the image of Dearborn distorted." McDowell recognized he's also an outsider: "We come and we leave. If we do not build up the local community of believers, then we have failed."
Other Christians, including those who traveled to Dearborn as part of Ministry to Muslims Network, said they participated in discussions with Muslims about their beliefs without incident. One, a Pakistani Christian who asked not to be named because she is a recent immigrant and has family in Pakistan, said Muslims at the festival repeatedly asked her to convert to Islam.
But tactical issues-how best to interact Muslims and assist the local church community-are separate from legal issues over how the four ended up in the city jail. They stayed overnight and were released Saturday morning (June 19) after friends posted bail. Ten days later, police had not returned the video cameras with footage confiscated during the arrests. And they had not provided a police report detailing charges, Wood said.
Robert Muise, attorney for the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center, which is representing the group, told me he submitted a written request through the prosecutor's office to Dearborn police Chief Ronald Haddad for return of the cameras. They contain evidence he said is needed to prepare his clients' defense. I placed phone calls to Haddad's office, leaving messages and voicemail for comment, but they were not returned. Haddad's handling of the case is receiving scrutiny in part because of his recent appointment to the Homeland Security Advisory Council-set up by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in the wake of the Christmas Day bombing attempt aboard a Northwest flight landing at nearby Detroit Metro Airport.
On Sunday, June 20, Wood and two other men not involved in the arrests returned to the streets outside the festival. They handed out pamphlets they said contained the Gospel of John, but soon were told to stop. A videotape of the episode, later posted on YouTube, shows the three men surrounded by seven Dearborn police officers, who told them they could not hand out literature within a five-block radius of the event.
"We have something called the First Amendment in this country, which prohibits police from restricting lawful freedom of speech and movement," Muise said. The arrested are scheduled to appear in court in Dearborn on July 12, and plan to enter pleas of not guilty. Muise said they also plan to file a civil suit against the police department.
Theirs is not the only legal action surrounding this year's Arab festival. George Saieg (whom Muise and the Thomas More Law Center also represent), sued the city over its policy against distributing literature during the festival. In recent years it has restricted groups from handing out material except from sanctioned booths inside festival tents for what it called safety reasons. On June 7 a district court judge in Dearborn ruled in favor of that policy, but on June 18-just as the festival opened-a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, granting an emergency motion allowing Saieg, a pastor from California and former Sudanese Muslim, to hand out literature outside the festival tents.
Wood recognizes that his group may have sparked a sharp debate about how Christians interact with Muslims over their beliefs. That's how he and Qureshi began. Wood was an atheist who had become a Christian when he met Qureshi, a U.S.-born Muslim whose parents were from Pakistan. Both were students at Virginia's Old Dominion University and became best friends. Wood said both tried to convert the other.
"Lots of people think that in order to be friends with someone of another faith, you have to avoid the touchy subjects," Wood said. "We argued all the time and stayed up whole nights talking about theology. We loved it." Qureshi eventually became a Christian. The two started Acts 17 Apologetics, Wood said, because "we were annoyed that we had talked to Christians who could not give us a reason to believe in Christianity. We have focused on making sure that people are aware of the facts about Christianity and about Islam so they can make informed decisions about what they believe."
Dearborn may continue to be a hotbed for such discussions. The Detroit metro area remains an in-demand refugee resettlement center, mostly for Arabs. One in five Iraqi refugees arrive in Detroit, and Arabs make up 30 percent of the Dearborn population. Twenty years ago a majority were Lebanese, and many of them Christians. But Muslims-particularly from Iraq and Yemen-have added significantly to Dearborn's Muslim makeup.
(Editor's Note: This article has been edited to reflect that Josh McDowell has handed out over 3,000 autographed books at this year's Arab International Festival in Dearborn, Mich.)