The New America They’re Arab, but Christian, and they expect you to know that
STERLING HEIGHTS, Mich. | Arab Christians here are trying to separate themselves from a boisterous Muslim community that has served as a punching bag for “terrorism” stereotypes since Sept. 11.
Many have moved to Detroit’s northern suburbs - Sterling Heights, Madison Heights, Farmington Hills and the Bloomfield areas - to get away from the high concentration of Muslims in Dearborn, said Pastor Haytham Abi Haydar of Arabic Fellowship Alliance Church. Other Christians, he said, have turned their backs on their Arab heritage and integrated with American culture.
But just like Middle Easterners often assume America is a Christian nation, many Americans assume all Arabs are Muslims. That’s made life in a post9/11 world difficult for a group of people that is proving religion has no borders.
“On many, many, many occasions, if you’re an Arab, you might as well be a Muslim to many people here,” Mr. Abi Haydar said. “Unfortunately, the majority don’t see the dynamic that Christianity came from the Middle East, that Jesus was from the Middle East.”
Mr. Abi Haydar said some Americans know the difference and do not stereotype. “You can’t label all Americans as ignorant,” he said.
Still, there are many pastors and churchgoers who assume that all Arab Christians are converts from Islam, when, in fact, many have been Christians all their lives.
“I’ve seen a lot of Christians in churches here who don’t even know the difference between Arab Christians and Arab Muslims,” Mr. Abi Haydar said. “They think, ‘You’re an Arab. That means you’re a Muslim, or you conver ted from Islam.’ ”
Many of these problems were brought on by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, when he started drawing attention to the Arab community after he masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Arab Christians hope the tension dies now that he’s dead, so they can move on.
William Salaita, a Roman Orthodox Christian who immigrated here from Jordan in 1979, knows the depths of Arab stereotyping all too well. He still remembers the months following the terrorist attacks in
“On many, many, many occasions, if you’re an Arab, you might as well be a Muslim to many people here,” said Pastor Haytham Abi Haydar of Arabic Fellowship Alliance Church. “Unfortunately, the majority don’t see the dynamic that Christianity came from the Middle East, that Jesus was from the Middle East.” Mr. Abi Haydar said some Americans know the difference and do not stereotype. “You can’t label all Americans as ignorant,” he said.
2001, when his daughter, who attended a Chr istian high school at the time, called him in tears one day because of discrimination from fellow classmates of the same faith.
“Almost everyone in school is accusing me of being Osama bin Laden’s terrorist,” she told him.
Noora Yousif, from Sterling Heights, has noticed a similar problem. She’s a Chaldean, a term that usually refers to Iraqi Catholics. But many Americans assume that’s another word for Muslims.
“I don’t think a lot of people know what Chaldeans are,” she said. “Automatically, they would assume you are a Muslim, until you start explaining to them.”
Arab Christians who are integrated into American society, those who speak the language and dress to fit in, are less likely to face problems, she said.
That’s why many Arab Christians have disengaged from their Middle Eastern roots, Mr. Abi Haydar explained.
Miss Fakhri admits it would be difficult to settle down in Dearborn, because the Muslims customs are so different from her own and she would feel “weird living there.”
“I think it’s very hard for a Christian to live there in a Muslim community,” she said. “I would feel uncomfortable to live there. You feel like the whole community is total different.”