Arab Christians moving from Muslim communities

201105.jpgBRYAN MITCHELL/SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES Noora Yousif, 24, an Arab-American and a Christian, works as a receptionist in Detroit. She came to the U.S. from Iraq 10 years ago and lives in Sterling Heights. She’s a Chaldean, an Iraqi Catholic. “I don’t think a lot of people know what Chaldeans are,” she said.
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 post-9/11 world difficult for a group of people who 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 converted 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 2001, when his daughter, who attended a Christian 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.