Civil suit 'likely' over Arab festival charges
DEARBORN, Mich. (BP)--A civil lawsuit may be filed against the city of Dearborn, Mich., on behalf of four people -- including two Southern Baptists -- who were arrested on charges of "breaching the peace" at an Arab festival in Dearborn, Mich.
The four were later acquitted of those charges.
Attorney Robert Muise of the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the arrest and detainment of four self-described Christian missionaries on June 18 at Dearborn's annual International Arab Festival were a clear infringement of their first and fourth amendment rights and a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.
A Dearborn jury on Sept. 24 acquitted all four defendants -- Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood, Negeen Mayel, and Paul Rezkalla on the breach of peace charges. Mayel was convicted of an additional charge of failure to obey a police officer. Muise said that ruling would be appealed and the conviction likely overturned.
The charges arose out of an incident at the Arab International Festival this past June in Dearborn, Mich., in which and a group of young men were discussing the claims of Christianity. The four were working with a ministry founded by Qureshi and Wood, a former atheist, called Acts 17 Apologetics. They were videotaping the dialogue when Dearborn police arrested Qureshi.
Muise said Dearborn authorities established overbearing regulations for the festival that stifle free speech, especially the Christian witness. Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, is believed to be home to the second largest Arab population outside the Middle East. Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly Jr. hired the city's first Arab American police chief, Ronald Haddad, in 2008.
Muise said Haddad, with the sergeant in charge of security and a community liaison for the festival, developed the highly restrictive criteria for the festival, even creating a "buffer zone" reached as far as five blocks from the festival entrance. The sidewalks are no longer considered public domain by festival guidelines.
The new guidelines stymied the dissemination of Christian material in or near the festival, Muise maintains. Organizers argue that all festival participants are allowed to work from a booth within the festival, and five Christian organizations chose to do so but the defendants chose not to.
As in years past, the festival included other Christian groups who were granted booths at the event, including Josh McDowell's ministry. None reported problems with police, but those ministries apparently did not venture outside their booths to evangelize.
The Acts 17 group had no such booth, but they say their right to free speech in a public place was violated by their arrest and detainment.
Qureshi and Wood are familiar with the festival and its regulations. They were among four people last year -- including Mary Jo Sharp, a member of Nassau Bay Baptist Church in suburban Houston and a frequent apologetics speaker -- who were escorted out of the festival by police after Qureshi tried to engage a booth attendant in a videotaped dialogue about Islam.
Mayel told the TEXAN in an e-mail: "The prosecutor painted us out to be racist against Muslims when the truth is two of us are ex-Muslims and we would have never gone to the Arab Festival had it not been for our deep love for Muslims."
Videotape of the June 18 incident reveals a series of rapid-fire questions for Qureshi from eight to 10 young men at the festival. Qureshi took questions from the inquisitive group, including one about when Jesus was first considered God. Qureshi is heard telling the young men that Jesus has changed his life and that God loved them enough to send his son to die for them.
The tone of the conversation is tense but not threatening, contrary to the testimony of one of the arresting officers. Finally, the camera turns toward a Dearborn Police Officer who approaches Qureshi from behind and asks him to place his hands behind his back.
At this point Wood, Qureshi, and Rezkalla were arrested and charged with breach of peace. Mayel, who had been videotaping the encounter from a distance, was arrested prior to her cohorts. Muise said the arresting officer reported Qureshi had drawn "a riotous crowd of 50-60 people and was shouting."
"They didn't like the video and the video exonerated [my clients]," he said.
Muise said the fact that witnessing for Christ to Muslims in America is a criminal offense is disturbing. One of the first protective measures of First Amendment rights, Muise said, is the defense against "The heckler's veto." A speaker cannot be silenced by authorities for fear of how the audience will react to his words, Muise said.
In an open letter posted on the City of Dearborn website, the mayor said Acts 17 Apologetics came with the intention of being arrested in order to "inflame the passions of viewers who would be taken in by their misrepresentation of what was really going on."
"People who would promote hatred and lies to get others to act in ways that are contrary to what America stands for are the real enemy for all lovers of our country," O'Reilly continued. "History is full of horrific events that were manufactured by lies to get good people to act purely emotionally to achieve the deceivers' ends."
O'Reilly accused the group in a Detroit Free Press article of using the event as a tactic to raise money for their ministry.
Muise said he is looking at all documentation to build his case for a civil suit against the city of Dearborn.
"The bottom line in the jury's not guilty verdict: the Constitution, not Sharia law, still prevails in Dearborn, Michigan," wrote Richard Thompson, the Thomas More Law Center's president and chief counsel.
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist Texan, newsjournal for churches of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. The video in question may be viewed at www.thomasmore.org/default-sb_thomasmore.html?761376103.