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Sterling Heights Controversy prompts conversations about Chaldeans and Muslims co-existing in the United States

By Vanessa Denha Garmo

The residents in Sterling Heights opposing the mosque being built come from diverse backgrounds and all are not Chaldeans. However, the story that has garnered media attention for nearly two years has prompted the discussion about Chaldeans and Muslims co-existing in the United States.

Many of the residents in Sterling Heights are new Americans who have recently resettled from Iraq after escaping persecution as Christians. Some may view this as the reason many oppose the building of a mosque in the city.

“There are some deep wounds that have to be healed and it will take time,” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation. “For many of them, whenever a new mosque was built in Iraq, it meant displacement, demographic shifts and often discrimination against Christians. Given the history, it is highly insensitive to build in this neighborhood.”

The violence against Christians and other minorities committed by ISIS and other radical Islamic groups continue. “However, I am hopeful the building of a mosque will lead to broader discussions about inclusiveness here in America,” said Manna. “We are working to schedule meetings with the Arab and Muslim leaders to continue the dialogue and begin the process of healing.”

Long-time Sterling Heights resident Youel Isho noted that for the Christians who immigrated to the United States decades ago, it was easier for them to assimilate compared to the recent arrivals who came under refugee status and left Iraq because of religious persecution.

“For the people who have had dealt with religious persecution in recent years, it does affect their mental status,” said Isho, from the Assyrian Universal Alliance. “They think the same violence and attacks that happened in their homeland will happen here, but for people who settled in the United States 30 or 40 years ago, they understand the freedom of religion here in this country.”

Like many people who opposed the mosque, Isho doesn’t site religion. “For me, this issue is about the mosque being in the wrong location. There are already three mosques in Sterling Heights. This particular one is in the center of a neighborhood surrounded by Christians. It is a residential area. The opposition is about the location.”

Many who oppose the structure have been vocal about their reasons. “The building itself does not make sense for the location,” said Amira Bajoka business owner in Sterling Heights and community activist. “It is too big for the area. It is in the middle of neighborhood. There is no room for parking. This is a logistical issue.”

Bajoka has spoken several times in the city at public meetings. “This mosque is just 70-feet from homes,” said Bajoka.  “There will be cars in and out for Ramadan for example. They will use it as a school and funeral home and for kids’ activities. The noise will be unbearable.”

In terms of needing a fourth mosque, not all agree it’s an issue.  “It is not up to me to decide that question,” said Nasser Beydoun, chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League. “The Muslim community in Sterling Heights, which many have lived in the area before the influx of the Chaldean community, decided to expand an existing mosque in the area and that is their right.”

It’s a proposed 20,000-square-foot facility. Sterling Heights City Council voted unanimously to approve building a mosque after a heated meeting in February. The proposal, which involves the land at 15 Mile and Mound, was rejected in 2015 but two federal lawsuits against the city have forced the council to reconsider.

The city has also agreed to settle those lawsuits, saying it will keep Sterling Heights out of costly litigation.

Jazmine Early, who also opposes the mosque, is originally from Columbia and is an architect by trade. “I saw the plans, and they do not fit the area,” she said. “The building itself is too big. Something that was not mentioned to the planning commission was the basement. This is not the right area to build such a building of its magnitude — in the middle of a residential area.”

Early is not only an architect, but she is a Sterling Heights resident running for city council and has been very vocal about her opinions. “When you are designing, you have to take into consideration every aspect including the physical aspect, the social aspect and the zoning aspect,” she said.  “Everything has to work before you design a project. This is not the place for this structure.”

The city council decision followed months of emotional protests and commentary in and outside of City Hall. “I think it is ignorance and lack of leadership in the Chaldean community,” said Beydoun.  “The Chaldean Church’s silence on the matter speaks volumes.  If the Chaldean community wanted to build a church for their community in a Muslim area, as an Arab/American community leader, I would be the first to support it.  If you fan the fire of hate, it will consume you.”

Fr. Maneul Boji, Vicar General, first spoke about this issue publicly on the Chaldean Voice.  “I discussed this issue when they first didn’t approve the mosque and I addressed it when they did this last time and I had the same thing to say,” explained Fr. Boji. “We must address our differences in a civilized manner. We cannot allow our emotions to control us. Our religion is built on acceptance of others. God created us to respect our brothers and sisters. And, whether you are Christian, Muslim or Jewish, we are called to live in peace, love and to have respect for each other.”

Fr. Boji also met with some Muslim leaders who are involved with the mosque project. “I explained that I don’t think handling this in the court was the right thing to do, is not the right way to ease the co-existence of people from different religious backgrounds.”

The meeting last month was designed to help resolve the differences. “I explained that there should be mutual respect for each other and not this coercive approach. That will create animosity and ill feeling of the many Christians from the Middle East who recently fled persecution led by extreme Muslims.”

The question becomes can Chaldeans and Muslims co-exist peacefully in the United States?  “We have always co-existed,” said Bajoka. “Some of my closest friends in Iraq are Muslim. In the 70s and 80s before we opened many of our own restaurants and stores, we shopped at their businesses in Dearborn.  Yes, we can co-exist but there are deep wounds and some fears that exist because of the on-going persecution.”

“In the business arena, there is a great working relationship between our communities,” said Beydoun. “I think that the communities must learn to co-exist as other communities do in the US.  We need to put the past and what happened in Iraq behind us and work to build a better future not only here in the US, but help build a message of co-existence and harmony in the Middle East.”

There is a historical relationship between Christians and Muslims in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq. “I am a strong proponent for a vibrant and thriving Christian community in the Middle East,” said Beydoun.  “We should not let the current upheaval destroy the diversity that has existed for a thousand years.”

Citing religious freedom in the United States as a great privilege, Fr. Boji noted it is not a freedom given to Christians in other countries. “In America, we can co-exist peacefully and we should live in peace with each other. As Christians, we are called to accept all people and to call for a mutual respect among all of them.  Yes, we can co-exist and should with peace and respect.  However, the same religious freedoms given to us in the United States should also be given in the Middle East. An adult should be able to choose his religion and practice it freely.”

The story is not over. Last month, Sterling Heights residents sued the city to stop the construction of the mosque. The American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a civil rights lawsuit against Sterling Heights and its Mayor Michael C. Taylor, alleging violations of federal and state law. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven residents of the City who oppose the construction of a mosque.

The City decided not to defend against the claims made by the American Islamic Community Center (AICC) in its lawsuit filed against the city in 2016, but instead to enter into a Consent Judgment that granted AICC permission to build the mosque even though doing so violated the City’s zoning ordinance.

The Consent Judgment agreement was made during a council meeting in February.  During this meeting, the City Mayor engaged in conduct that AFLC alleges in its lawsuit violated the U.S. Constitution and Michigan Open Meetings Act.  Meanwhile, on March 10, the district court judge presiding over the AICC’s federal lawsuit signed the Consent Judgment and closed the case.

By doing so, the judge authorized the City to violate its zoning ordinance by allowing the construction of the mosque, according to the report. The AFLC’s lawsuit alleges that this was improper and is asking in its lawsuit that the court declare the Consent Judgement in valid and unenforceable.

“The City’s decision to enter into the Consent Judgement was a fait accompli,” said Robert Muise, AFLC co-founder and senior counsel. “The City Council meeting was a complete sham. Indeed, this meeting was not an example of democracy in action; it was an example of naked abuse of government power.”