Area Middle Eastern leaders got face-time with Trump in Novi

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A group of area Middle Eastern leaders — including a Shia Muslim leader who left Hizballah — met and spoke with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump before his rally in Novi on Friday.
About 15 community leaders, mostly of Iraqi and Lebanese descent, had one-on-one sessions with Trump to discuss issues important to them and their communities. Several were Iraqi-American Christians who told Trump about the struggles of Iraq’s Christian minorities as they face the rise of ISIS and other extremist groups, said those who attended the meeting.

“I talked to him about the plight of the Christians, and how they’ve been tortured and persecuted and displaced” in Iraq, said Joseph Kassab, head of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield. “I said to him, ‘Please save them from extinction,’ and he looks at me and nodded his head. He thought it was horrible what’s happening to them, the Iraqi Christians.”

Kassab said he then gave Trump’s advisers a research paper that calls for helping Iraq’s minorities with international protection and creating a province in the Nineveh Plains for them. Kassab praised Trump for speaking out during the campaign about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and religious freedom, but added that he’s also willing to meet with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

“My mission is to talk to anybody in order to get something done for my people,” Kassab said, indicating that there were 200-300 Middle Eastern and Arab-Americans at the rally. “We’re in support of whoever supports our people. Trump wants to show support…Trump is supporting them first.”

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“He’s talking about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, and he’s talking about freedom of religion that should be protected.”

Kassab said other community and religious leaders with roots in the Middle East who met and spoke with Trump included local businessman and Chaldean leader, Sam Yono, Sheikh Mohammad Al Hajj Hassan, who leads the Free Shia Movement in Lebanon, John Akouri, president and CEO of the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce, who spoke at the rally before Trump, Saad Abbo of the Chaldean American Chamber of Commerce,  Lebanese-American Christian leader Milad Zohrob, Dr. Zina Asmar-Salem, a Chaldean-American leader in West Bloomfield, Armenian-American leader attorney Ed Haroutunian of Bingham Farms and the Rev. Anthony Kathawa of St. Thomas Chaldean Church in West Bloomfield.

The Novi meetings came the day after Khizr Khan, a Muslim attorney who criticized Trump at the Democratic National Convention, spoke in Dearborn to more than 800 at the annual banquet of the Arab American Civil Rights League. In August, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, Huma Abedin, who is Muslim and of South Asian descent, spoke in Dearborn to Arab-American and Muslim leaders.

Paul ElHindi, a local leader with the American-MidEast Coalition for Donald Trump, helped organize the meetings with Trump, said Kassab. The coalition has been mobilizing to increase support for Trump among Middle Eastern communities.

Addressing the crowd in Novi before Trump spoke,  Akouri, a former city councilman in Farmington Hills active in the Lebanese-American Christian community,  attacked Hillary Clinton’s policies.

“Myself and others from the Middle Eastern community…are here today in full support of Donald Trump,” Akouri said. “The places where our families are from being destroyed and ripped apart as a direct result of your weak, politically-correct foreign policy,” he said of Hillary Clinton.

Several of the leaders got to sit on stage during the rally; two of them — the Rev. Kathawa and Sheikh Hassan — were seen in the broadcasts of the event sitting behind Trump as he spoke. At one point, Hassan smiled and waved at Trump.

Some were surprised to see a Muslim leader wearing a turban on stage behind Trump given Trump’s remarks in the past about Muslims. On social media, Hassan was criticized by some for appearing at the Trump rally.

Hassan, who is Lebanese Shia, has views that are at odds with many in the Lebanese Shia community.

Several years ago, Hassan left Hizballah – a group in Lebanon classified as a terrorist group by the U.S. government – and is now with a dissident Shia group that criticizes Hizballah, the Free Shia Movement.

Hassan is a controversial figure among Lebanese Shias because of his criticism of the two main parties and groups in Lebanon that represent Shias: Hizballah and Amal. He is also critical of  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Last year on a TV show in Lebanon, Hassan called Hizballah “hooligans,” according to the the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors media in the Arab world.  In 2007, Hassan called Syrian President al-Assad the “godfather of idiots,” according to MEMRI.

Contact Niraj Warikoo: nwarikoo@freepress.com or 313-223-4792. Follow him on Twitter @nwarikoo

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