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Mich. Arab Festival Being Moved After Religious Tensions

posted on: Apr 29, 2013

After four years of increasing tensions between some Christian missionaries and local Muslims, the annual Arab International Festival in Dearborn is being moved from a street that has open access to a public park that could restrict admission to paid attendees.

Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly said Friday that the city plans to shift the festival – the biggest annual outdoor gathering of Arab Americans in the U.S. – to Ford Woods Park. One of the reasons for the move is liability concerns; the city has been hit with lawsuits from some Christian missionaries alleging their free speech rights were curtailed at the festival.

“Considering everything we’ve been through and what happened in the past,” said O’Reilly, the city wanted a place “where you can have a controlled site.”

The 18-year-old festival, held in June by the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, promotes Arab-American culture and local business. Fay Baydoun, executive director of the chamber, said on Friday that the group is working with the city on negotiating a price to rent out the park for the three-day festival planned for June 15-17.

There could be an admission fee to enter the park for the festival, which includes carnival games, amusement park rides and numerous vendor booths on Arab-American culture.

The festival has long had Christian missionaries in attendance, and there weren’t any tensions in the past. However, that changed in 2009 after aggressive new groups of missionaries started to arrive. That year, some yelled at festival goers “that they were going to hell because they were Muslim,” according to a Dearborn police report. Some also brought video cameras and recorded their encounters, which they posted online, sparking complaints about Dearborn’s Muslim population.

The tensions resulted in some Christian missionaries being escorted out. The next year, a group of them were arrested. They were later acquitted after a trial and have filed a lawsuit against the city. Other Christian groups also have filed a lawsuit, saying their First Amendment rights were restricted. Some have said that treatment at the festival proves that Dearborn is under sharia, Islamic law, a claim the mayor has repeatedly dismissed as ludicrous.

The Wayne County Sheriff’s Office has handled security at the event over the past two years. The Dearborn Police Department is expected to handle it this year, O’Reilly said.

The tensions escalated last year after a group called the Bible Believers brought a pig’s head mounted on a pole along with signs that denigrated Islam and its prophet, Mohammed, in explicit terms. Observant Muslims consider pigs to be dirty.

In response, some children got upset and a few hurled objects, including water bottles, at them.

O’Reilly said free speech must be respected, but he’s concerned that some groups were trying to provoke young children at the festival with outrageous words and signs.

“We’re not going to tolerate people insulting children, making gross statements … antagonizing children,” he said. “We’re going to make sure kids behave. But we’re also going to make sure that adults behave. Everybody’s got to behave.”

In the past, “no one had any problems,” at the festival, O’Reilly said. But over the past few years, “it became a target for people who have a different agenda. They weren’t here in the spirit of the festival.”

Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a Dearborn resident, said he supports the move, noting that the Warren Avenue location sometimes got congested.

Majed Moughni, a Dearborn attorney and activist, said he also supports the move. But he said that festival goers could continue to face hostile speech from some missionaries.

“They can still stand on the city’s sidewalks … or in front of the entrance,” said Moughni, who disagreed with the police arrest of missionaries in 2010. “You can’t violate someone’s free speech.”

Niraj Warikoo
Detroit Free Press