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.
“They don’t distinguish,” he later said. “We look like people who are from al Qaeda or a terrorist organization.”
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.”
Oftentimes the stereotyping depends on where they live, said Shirin Fakhri, a member at Arabic Brethren Assembly Church in Sterling Heights, where she lives. She immigrated to the U.S. from Iraq in 1995, and has been fortunate enough to avoid stereotyping, because the community is more familiar with the Arab Christian population than in other areas.
Furthermore, 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. While many Muslim communities keep their identities, many Christians “melt into American society.”
“The Christians don’t want to be around Muslims,” Mr. Abi Haydar said. “They just want to stay away from them.”
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.”
But Mr. Abi Haydar laments over the divide between Arab Christians and Muslims. While many of these Christians have moved to the northern suburbs, his church continues to be based in Dearborn, so they can reach out to their fellow Arabs.
“I find it very unfortunate, because Christians are failing to be a light to that community,” he said.
At Heritage Baptist Church in Sterling Heights, Mich., they are trying to defying these labels. The congregation shares its building with the Arabic Brethren Assembly Church, and they occasionally enjoy meals together.
“These are wonderful Christian brothers,” said Kevin McGuire, an assistant pastor at the Baptist church. “They worship the same Christ we do. We count them as part of the family of God.”