By J. PATRICK PEPPER
DEARBORN — The controversy surrounding the arrest of four Christian evangelicals at the Arab International Festival in June continued last week with the group’s arraignment in 19th District Court.
Nabeel Qureshi of Virginia, Negeen Mayel of California and New Yorkers Paul Rezkalla and David Wood on June 12 pleaded innocent to charges of disorderly conduct. Mayel also pleaded innocent to an additional charge of failure to obey a police officer’s order. A trial date has been scheduled for Sept. 20.
But the misdemeanor charges largely have been overshadowed by differing accounts of the events preceding the arrests. Members of the group, known as Act 17 Apologetics, say they were at the festival simply to share the Good Word.
City officials, however, say the group’s motives were more insidious: to foment intolerance of Muslims and invite confrontation for monetary gain.
In a prepared statement issued a day before the arraignment, city officials gave this account of events:
“On Friday, June 18 at approximately 8:30 p.m., officers working the festival were in the preparation stages of conducting a full festival evacuation due to an approaching severe thunderstorm.
“The police command center received a complaint, from a Christian volunteer working the festival, regarding members of Acts 17 Apologetics harassing and intimidating patrons of the festival, and that a large crowd was gathering. Officers responded to the area where, in fact, a large, agitated crowd had gathered due to the actions of the individuals of Acts 17 Apologetics.
“Public safety became an issue for both members of Acts 17 Apologetics and the gathering crowd. The four members chose to escalate their behavior, which appeared well-orchestrated and deliberate, and chose not to follow the directions being given to them by the responding officers. The behavior of these individuals drew and incited a large crowd to a point where they were in violation of city of Dearborn ordinances … They were arrested. Upon their arrest, the crowd dispersed without further action being needed.”
Like the city, the evangelists have waged a public information campaign including online videos and numerous blog posts. Qureshi, on his blog answeringmuslims.com, provided a differing account.
“Paul, David, Negeen and I went to the festival to see and comment on the situation. Thankfully, we recorded every second of our activity at the festival. At one point, we came across a festival volunteer who seemed to take issue with us simply being at the festival.”
“We could tell he had a problem with us, and so we asked ‘What are we doing wrong?’ He said ‘Put the camera and microphone down, and I’ll tell you.’ (By the way, there was more to this conversation, but when you see the footage, I think you’ll see I’m being fair in my summary.)”
“So I obliged, handing the microphone to David and asking him to not record the man. I then approached him and said, ‘No camera, no mic, tell me what we’re doing wrong.’ He said, ‘Get away from me!’ (or something to that effect). Again, I obliged, and walked away.
“About 20 minutes later, to shouts and cheers of ‘Allahu Akbar,’ we were all being led away from the festival in handcuffs. From the brief description we were given by the police of why we were being arrested, it sounds like the festival volunteer said we surrounded him and didn’t give him an opportunity to leave, thereby breaching the peace. This is as blatantly false as an accusation can get.”
The disagreement over what happened has led to pointed claims by both sides and has people weighing in from across the religio-political spectrum. Attorney Richard Thompson of the Ann Arbor-based Thomas More Law Center, a pro bono Christian interest firm that is representing the group, accused police of violating the quartet’s First Amendment rights in order to “placate Muslims.”
“These Christians were exercising their constitutional rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion,” Thompson said in a statement.
“But apparently in a city where the Muslim population seems to dominate the political apparatus, Sharia law trumps our Constitution.”
Mayor John O’Reilly Jr. countered that the group ignored festival policies regarding where special interest groups could conduct their business and pointed to the fact that several other evangelist groups proselytized at the event without incident.
“Act 17 arrive(d) in Dearborn with the intent to disrupt a local cultural festival and misrepresent facts in order to further their mission of raising funds through emotional response,” O’Reilly said.
In the city’s press release on the issue, Dearborn Christian Pastor Haytham Abi-Haydar, who has been part of the festival since 1999, was quoted as saying, “The community has been very good to us. From my perspective, we have never had any incidents.”
He said of David Wood and Acts 17 Apologetics, “Why can’t he go around with no cameras, not intimidating people, ask questions and build relationships with the community and sharing Christ? Why is that difficult?”
But state Rep. Tom McMillin (R-Rochester), who attended the arraignment, has called for Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox to investigate the incident for freedom of speech and religion violations by Dearborn police.
“These men should not be punished for exercising their inalienable rights,” McMillin said on his Legislature Website.
Joining him in discontent is fellow Republican Majed Moughni, a candidate for 15th District U.S. Representative. Moughni, a Muslim, was also on hand for the court proceedings, which took place across the street from his Michigan Avenue law office. On his Facebook group Dearborn Area Community Members, Moughni accused O’Reilly of waging an “attack campaign” against the evangelists.
“Although, some of you may not agree with their message, we must not allow the city of Dearborn to attack our most cherished freedom, our Freedom of Speech,” said Moughni, who is organizing a protest later this month in support of the evangelists.
“This is our time to rise up and stand up for our Chirstian brothers,” he added.