Features
Maria Haddad

Smelting pot

Religion | Historic auto capital heats up over Christian evangelists arrested during predominantly Muslim festival

Issue: "Tilting at turbines," July 17, 2010

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.

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"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."

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