Michigan city apologizes for arresting Christian missionaries

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DEARBORN, Mich. — The city of Dearborn will publicly apologize and pay an undisclosed amount of money to a group of Christian missionaries arrested three years ago while proselytizing at the annual Arab International Festival, according to a settlement reached in a lawsuit against the city.

The American Freedom Law Center, a conservative legal group co-founded by an Ann Arbor, Mich., attorney, had filed the lawsuit on behalf of a group of Christian missionaries called Acts 17 Apologetics who said their rights were violated when they were arrested by police in June 2010 at the festival for disturbing the peace. The missionaries were there to try and convert Muslims to Christianity. After a trial in 2011, a jury acquitted the missionaries of most of the charges against them.

Under the terms of the settlement, the city must post an apology on its website for three years. It also must remove a press release and letter on the website from Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly in 2010 that had criticized Acts 17 Apologetics for “their attack on the City of Dearborn for having tolerance for all religions including believers in the Koran.”

The city’s apology says in part that it “regrets and apologizes for the decisions to arrest and prosecute (members of Acts 17) ... and the hardship caused to everyone involved.”

The settlement is the latest development in ongoing tensions between some Christian groups and some local Muslims in the city of Dearborn, which has the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the United States. Tensions at the Arab Festival have drawn national attention from some conservatives who say it illustrates the influence of sharia, Islamic law, in Dearborn, a claim that city officials have said is absurd.

“For too long, our clients have been vilified for simply exercising their constitutional right to evangelize on a public street during the Arab Festival,” said the attorney for American Freedom, Robert Muise of Ann Arbor.

Christian missionaries have long been at the 18-year-old Arab Festival, the biggest outdoor gathering of Arab-Americans in the U.S. But there weren’t any problems until 2009, when more aggressive missionaries started appearing, said city officials and religious leaders in Dearborn.

Using video cameras, some Christian missionaries started recording their experiences as they argued against Islam, drawing heated reactions in some cases. Their actions were criticized by some local leaders.

The Rev. Haytham Abi Haydar, an evangelical leader in Dearborn, in 2009 said of Acts 17 Apologetics: “They put cameras in their faces and were very antagonistic.”

Last year, a separate group of Christian missionaries called Bible Believers brought a pig’s head mounted on a pole and signs denigrating Islam to the Arab Festival, drawing a heated reaction from some children.

Quran-burning pastor Terry Jones said he intends to go to the festival this year to preach against Islam. He said the Christian missionary who brought the pig’s head will be with him.

The American Freedom Law Center has also filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Bible Believers, saying their rights were violated when Wayne County Sheriffs allegedly failed to protect them last year after their pig’s head prompted some kids to hurl objects at them, such as water bottles. Observant Muslims, like observant Jews, consider pigs to be unclean.

Because of the tensions, the city of Dearborn has decided to move this year’s festival away from its traditional location on Warren Avenue to a park, where admission will be more controlled.

The mayor could not be immediately reached Monday, but told the Detroit Free Press last month that while the city respects free speech, “we’re not going to tolerate people insulting children, making gross statements ... antagonizing children.”

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