In the end, the Iraqi Christians of Sterling Heights, Michigan, say they felt abandoned and left vulnerable by their government.
It didn't matter that they had escaped genocide in the Middle East.
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It didn't matter they had 180 people at the City Council meeting Tuesday to voice their concerns about a large mosque being proposed in the middle of their neighborhood.
It didn't matter, they say, that Donald Trump is their new president or that Jeff Sessions is the new attorney general.
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They lost. The Muslims won.
The city on Tuesday night agreed to a settlement with a Muslim group that wants to build a mega-mosque on 15 Mile at Mound Road, in the heart of a residential area filled with Christians who escaped Muslim persecution in Iraq.
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The nearly 200 people who packed city hall in protest of the mosque were limited by Mayor Michael C. Taylor to two minutes of speaking time.
"There were people crying, complaining about not being given enough time to speak," said Nahren Anweya, spokeswoman for the approximately 50,000 Chaldean and Assyrian Christians living in the area.
"The mayor was literally acting like a dictator, wouldn’t let people finish their statements," she told WND. "As soon as they said something about the persecution their family experienced from Muslims in Iraq, he would shut them down."
Anweya said her own great-grandfather was crucified by Muslims in Iraq because he refused to remove the large gold cross he wore around his neck. Her family immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, when she was 6 years old.
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According to the settlement deal, the city of Sterling Heights will grant the American Islamic Community Center a permit to build a 20,800-square-foot mosque and will send city employees to classes teaching them how not to discriminate against Muslims in the future.
The city planning commission had denied the mosque permit in September 2015, but nearly a year later the mosque sued the city claiming discrimination. In December 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice joined in with a similar suit claiming the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act, or RLUIPA.
RLUIPA was passed by Congress in 2000 to discourage cities and towns from discriminating against houses of worship in zoning decisions. But the law was increasingly used under the Obama administration to bully local governments into accepting controversial mosque projects.
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The story of the struggle against the Islamization of Sterling Heights, Hamtramck and all of Southeastern Michigan is told in gripping detail in the hot new book, "Stealth Invasion" by investigative reporter Leo Hohmann.
The AICC mosque is made up of Shiite Muslims predominantly from Yemen, Iran and Iraq. The mosque is currently headquartered in neighboring Madison Heights.
Residents who attended the meeting said it was tightly controlled by Mayor Taylor.
At one point, Taylor cleared the chamber of all people opposed to the mosque, ordering two police officers to escort them out. The council then voted unanimously to approve the federal government's consent order accusing the city of being discriminatory against Muslims.
The Chaldeans and others opposed to the mosque were hopeful up to the last minute that new Attorney General Jeff Sessions would step in and dismiss the DOJ lawsuit against the city.
That never happened. Sessions has only been seated less than two weeks and the few attorneys he has been able to hire would have likely not been up to speed on the case, legal analysts told WND.
Barbara McQuade, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan and an Obama appointee, led the investigation into the city's handling of the mosque project, and she remains in her post under Trump. She praised the settlement at a news conference Wednesday morning, saying it made her "very proud."
"I grew up in Sterling Heights, and I am very proud to announce this settlement," McQuade said of the DOJ lawsuit. "Inclusion cannot mean that some groups are welcome and others are not."
Construction on the mosque site could begin as early as summer.
Familiar with genocide
Anweya said the Iraqi Christians are a tight-knit community with a history of escaping genocide at the hands of Muslims in the Middle East, and the city should have listened to their concerns.
"They didn't even want to discuss it; their minds were already made up. [Mayor Taylor] really didn't even want to hear the people out," she said.
"Whenever someone voiced concerns about future persecution, he cut them off and called them out of order."
She said her people are concerned the Shiite mosque is being funded by Iran.
"Why would you build a mosque when you don't have a large population of Shiites in Sterling Heights? They're wanting to bring in people from other areas," Anweya said. "You're talking about a city that doesn't blink at spending $1 million on a playground, but they don't want to spend $350,000 on defending this lawsuit."
There were complaints, tears and shouts of betrayal as the citizen were ushered out of the meeting chamber.
City 'never intended to fight'
Assistant Deputy Attorney General Tom Wheeler, one of the few DOJ attorneys appointed by Trump, was involved in the settlement deal but it's not known to what extent. The DOJ did not return calls and emails from WND seeking comment.
Wheeler was appointed Jan. 21, at which point the settlement was already into the advanced stages of negotiation.
Typically these types of cases go into a protracted back-and-forth negotiation, said an attorney familiar with RLUIPA cases on a national level.
"I don't think the city ever really intended to fight this; they just went immediately into the settlement mode after the DOJ filed suit," said attorney Karen Lugo, author of the new book "Mosques in America."
"The settlement was likely well developed by the time Mr. Wheeler was appointed, and it’s basically a done deal."
Lugo watched a livestream video of the meeting and said it appeared the mayor had little patience for citizen concerns about traffic, parking, noise and other issues.
"This was kind of stunning. It wasn’t a hearing; it was a sham. It was clear from the beginning with the attorney's presentation that this was just going to be a matter of enduring everybody's two minutes," she said.
Only one councilman spoke, giving a lengthy monologue about Thomas Jefferson.
Lugo said local residents have a right to express their concerns, "especially when this apparently insurance-driven settlement overrode their planning commission. The council voted to overturn that without considering some very critical concerns presented by the planning commission. I think that is outrageous."
The city issued the following statement:
Over the past several months, the American Islamic Comm. Center (AICC) and the City have been engaged in facilitation to assist in bridging the gap between the Planning Commission’s land use concerns and those issues raised by the AICC in the lawsuit.
Because of that process, the AICC and the City have reached a compromised settlement. As part of the settlement, the issues of parking, traffic and overall size of the dome and spires initially raised by the Planning Commission have been addressed.
“This settlement ends separate litigation with both the AICC and the DOJ, while addressing the land use concerns raised by our Planning Commission,” said Sterling Heights Mayor Michael C. Taylor. “Settling these lawsuits at this time is in the best interest of all the residents of Sterling Heights, and allows both the City and the AICC to move forward.”
As stated in the City’s 2030 Visioning Statement, “Sterling Heights is a vibrant community for residents and business that is safe, active, progressive and distinctive. Inclusiveness continues to be a guiding principle for the City.
“Sterling Heights is a community that has and continues to welcome all faiths,” Mayor Taylor said. “The addition of the Mosque as a place of worship will add to the wide variety of places of worship across the City, including numerous churches, two other previously existing Mosques, a Sikh Temple, a Buddhist Temple and a BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir.
Anweya said the city has not heard the last from the Chaldean and Assyrian Christians.
"The Christians from Iraq they feel they've lost everything, so when there's a mosque placed right in the heart of their community, it's not gonna stop. There's gonna be a lot of hostilit. The city is creating a tension there," Anweya said.
"It's already starting off that way, so I didn't see it being good on any terms possible what happened last night," she said. "They know how we feel about it and how we protested it. Everyone should know the Christians of Iraq are the most warm and friendly people, and everyone has taken advantage of that — the Sunni Muslims, the Shiite Muslims and the Kurdish Muslims — and we ended up in the middle of a genocide."
The story of the struggle against the Islamization of Sterling Heights, Michigan, and many other U.S. cities is told in gripping detail in the hot new book, "Stealth Invasion" by investigative reporter Leo Hohmann.
Tom Mitchell, a 50-year resident and taxpayer of Sterling Heights, said Wednesday he was still in shock at how little respect he and other residents were given when they spoke to the council Tuesday.
"I'm still overwhelmed by it," he said. "You know, a word keeps staying in my mind since last night, 'tyranny.' What we witnessed was a tyrannical effort to shut down the good people of Sterling Heights to allow a nefarious agenda to move forward."
He said the mayor twice emptied the council chambers of all people against the mosque.
One young woman had to be removed.
"She got hysterical. I saw this for myself. These people are literally shaken by the possibility that the whole reason they left Iraq was the threat of death from Muslim groups," Mitchell said. "And to bring that right to their front door. One woman said they came to America to get away from that. They understand it's an ideology, but the people in control don't understand the threat."
Mitchell said the mosque ordeal has been a wake-up call that he and others need to be more supportive of the local Chaldean Christian community.
"It's made me more determined to help take care of the people I care about in my community," he said.
He said a coalition of like-minded residents, Chaldean immigrants and native-born Americans are starting to work closer together. A lawsuit against the city is being considered.
"I think that's being worked on right now," Mitchell said.
Not only did the city fail to announce the agenda for Tuesday's meeting in the local legal newspaper, but the way the meeting itself was handled seemed questionable, he said.
"We are a working-class community, very family oriented, but I feel that a lot of information about what's really happening with this consent decree was left out of the presentation.
"The big thing for me last night was the mayor shutting everybody down at every opportunity and literally clearing the room because they didn't like people getting passionate.
"I mean nobody got unruly," he said. "They were more upset than being purposely unruly. There was no compassion for the constituents in Sterling Heights last night. None.
"I think what happened last night did more to mobilize the community into a more cohesive unit to change what's going on in this city. I saw people from different neighborhoods and communities coming together in a common cause to make a change. And I'm hoping this stuff starts spilling over into the whole county. But I do feel that Sterling Heights is ground zero in this struggle."
Anweya said Chaldean immigrants will be more likely now to become active in the wake of the mosque battle. It is now personal for them.
"Freedom of speech? What freedom of speech? They were given two minutes, and the second they started talking about their culture and their history, they were told to sit down. And if they didn't sit down, [Taylor] had them escorted out by the police," she said.
"These were people who literally escaped from genocide in Iraq, and some were escorted out in tears. I'm surprised he handled it this way. Why would you want to upset a large minority? Even if they never voted in the last 20 years, they will vote now. Word is spreading and going viral now in the community, and they are going to vote and probably vote out the entire council. And I will help them. The mayor, we're going to probably go after him," said Anweya.
"It was a very sad day yesterday."