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FIRST-PERSON: Finding the truth about the Arab festival

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“When you jump to conclusions,” someone once said, “you tend to skip over the truth.” I recently made the mistake of leaping to a conclusion and, as a result, I hopped over some very pertinent facts.

In a column published by Baptist Press on June 25, I wrote:

“It seems that city leaders in Dearborn, Mich., could use a refresher course on the Bill of Rights as articulated in the United States Constitution, with special attention given to the freedom of speech granted in the first amendment.

“According to a variety of reports, four men were arrested during Dearborn’s recent Arab International Festival — which takes place annually and on public streets — for distributing copies of the Gospel of John written in English and Arabic.

“The men were later released and told by Dearborn police that the city had a policy stipulating that during the Arab festival no literature could be passed out within a five block radius of the event. Anyone violating the policy would be subject to arrest.”

I went on to accuse Dearborn officials of violating the free speech rights of Christians in an effort to shield Muslims from possible offense. In so doing, I hurdled over the truth and landed on a false conclusion.

While the arrest of the four men is troublesome, I have received ample information that makes it clear the Gospel is not being muzzled by anyone in the city of Dearborn. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be true.

For instance, at this year’s Arab International Festival several Christian ministries had booth space in an area designated for literature distribution. Among those with a presence at the festival was well-known Christian author and apologist Josh McDowell and the Baptist State Convention of Michigan.

McDowell gave away copies of several of his books including “More Than A Carpenter” and “The Witness,” an Arabic murder mystery novel. His ministry distributed thousands of books and McDowell interacted with festival goers while autographing books.

The Baptist State Convention of Michigan also distributed materials during the festival. “Our teams had a strong presence and had no issues at all,” wrote Carlos Liese, language ministry leader with the Michigan convention, in an e-mail. “Our volunteers had many conversations about Christ with participants, passed out 2000 ‘Jesus Film’ DVDs and 500 copies of the Gospel of John and Romans in Arabic.”

The festival, which is cultural rather than religious in nature, has taken place in Dearborn for 15 years and each year Christians have been welcome to have a presence and to also share their faith. According to reports an estimated 250,000 people attended this year’s three-day event.

I regret the conclusion that I jumped to and the impression it gave concerning the Christian presence and witness at the Dearborn Arab Festival.

Still troubling is the arrest of the four men — members of the apologetics ministry Acts 17 — who attempted to pass out copies of the Gospel of John in Arabic and English. Video evidence, provided by the men, indicates they were conducting themselves in a very peaceful manner.

Not only were the men arrested but their video cameras were confiscated and, as of yet, have not been returned.

The fact that Christians were present and distributing literature during the Arab Festival would rule out that the four men were arrested because of their message. Rather, it seems, they were detained because of their method.

Nabeel Qureshi, one of the men arrested, contends they were arrested because they refused to follow the rules for distributing literature.

“Not all Christian ran into trouble,” Qureshi said during an interview with Evidence4Faith, an apologetics ministry, that was broadcast via podcast. “Only those who were vocal in the presentation of the gospel. … We would not follow their exact rules.”

Qureshi added that the he and his three companions were told they were arrested for “causing disruptive behavior.” However, he insists the charge is bogus.

The First Amendment makes it very clear that the type of speech the government can constrict is very narrow. Christian literature is perfectly legitimate and protected. Christian literature was not constrained at the Dearborn Arab Festival.

However, the city of Dearborn seems to believe it has the right to regulate the method of distribution of literature during the Arab Festival, because it appears to be precisely why the Acts 17 evangelists ran into trouble.

If Christian literature was distributed in the area designated for such purposes during the festival, it was allowed. However, if the same or similar literature was distributed elsewhere, it was constrained.

Does the action the city of Dearborn constitution a violation of the First Amendment rights of the Acts 17 evangelists? I think so, but ultimately that will be up to a judge to decide.

As for me, I am going to focus on digging for facts rather than jumping to conclusions.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs