A jury in one of the most densely populated Muslim communities in the United States has acquitted four Christian street preachers of all but one of the charges laid against them earlier this year.
Nabeel Qureshi of Virginia, Negeen Mayel of California, and Paul Rezkalla and David Wood, both of New York, were all acquitted of breaching the peace Friday. Mayel, however, was found guilty of failing to obey a police officer's order. But her one-day jail sentence was waived for time served.
The four evangelists – associated with Acts 17 Apologetics Ministries – had been arrested back in June as they were attending the 15th Annual Dearborn Arab International Festival along with over 300,000 from across the country.
Though the preachers said they only spoke with people who wanted to speak with them, one of the volunteers at the festival contacted the police and accused the four of disturbing the peace.
The volunteer, Roger Williams of Florida, said Wednesday in his testimony that the group made him "nervous" and that he "felt intimidated." Though Williams' complaint was the only one police received, the four preachers were approached and soon after arrested for disturbing the peace.
Notably, only one – Qureshi – had actually been engaged in "civilized" conversations with those who approached him after recognizing him from the year before or after catching sight of his shirt, which read "Jesus Always Loves You." Two others – Wood and Rezkalla – were reportedly only videotaping the dialogues. The fourth – 18-year-old Mayel – was also videotaping, but doing so from afar.
Mayel, who said she was standing around 100 feet away from the others, was charged with failure to obey a police officer's order after Cpl. Brian Kapanowski told her to put down the camera and she instead held her camera in place as she backed away from him.
"When someone is a subject of an investigation, they have to stop what they're doing and answer my questions," Kapanowski told jurors Wednesday, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The four preachers and their attorneys, however, have alleged that the arrests were a "retaliatory action" over last year's run-in with the ministry, which is led by Qureshi, a former Muslim, and Wood, a former atheist.
Last year, the preachers recorded an "embarrassing video of the strong arm tactics used … by Festival Security Guards," noted Richard Thompson, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Law Center, which defended the four.
"This time, the first thing police officers did before making the arrests was to confiscate the video cameras in order to prevent a recording of what was actually happening," he added.
Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly Jr., however, says he believes the preachers were pulling a publicity stunt on YouTube in order raise money.
While he said he respects the jury's decision, O'Reilly also told the Free Press, "It's really about a hatred of Muslims."
"That is what the whole heart of this is," the mayor said. "Their idea is that there is no place for Muslims in America. They fail to understand the Constitution."
Dearborn, located seven miles west of Detroit, is one of the most densely populated Arab Muslim communities in the United States with nearly 30,000 out of city's 98,000 inhabitants believed to be Arab Muslims.
The city's annual Arab festival, which draws hundreds of thousands from across the country, Canada and the Middle-East has also been at the heart of a number of court battles in recent years, particularly over activities of Christians there.
One day before the four preachers were arrested, a federal court panel decided to allow a Sudanese Christian pastor to distribute religious literature and discuss his Christian faith to Muslims attending the large Arab festival while his case is pending on appeal.
Though Pastor George Saieg and his Calif.-based ministry, Arabic Christian Perspective (ACP), had visited Dearborn for the city's annual Arab festival since 2004, the group was told last year that they had to remain at a specific location and were not allowed to freely travel the public sidewalks to distribute their literature outside the festival.
When the Dearborn Police Department threatened to arrest Saieg if he distributed his religious literature near the 2009 festival, Ann Arbor-based TMLC filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, challenging the constitutionality of Dearborn's speech restriction.
TMLC argues that the U.S. Constitution "does not allow police to ban the right of free speech just because there are some hecklers."
The group, furthermore, has insisted that its clients should not even have to stand trial for exercising their First Amendment rights.
Despite TMLC and the street preachers' claims, city officials maintain that incidents such as the one this past June have nothing to do with First Amendment Rights.
"[I]t has to do with public safety and the individual choices made by the arrested parties," they argued.