CAIRO - As Christian missionaries harass Muslim visitors, local authorities in the US city of Dearborn have decided to move an annual Arab festival to a closed area to avoid religious tension.
"Considering everything we've been through and what happened in the past, the city wanted a place where you can have a controlled site, Dearborn Mayor Jack O'Reilly was quoted as saying by Detroit Free Press.
Arab Americans are planning to hold their annual outdoor festival in Dearborn on June 15-17.
Featuring live music and performances, carnival rides, henna designs, crafts and jewelry, the three-day Arab International Festival aims to promote Arab-American culture and local business.
But the 18-year event, organized by the American-Arab Chamber of Commerce, saw tension in recent years after attacks by Christian missionaries.
This has prompted local authorities to move the festival from open space to a public park to restrict access to the event.
Mayor O'Reilly said the city plans to move the festival, the biggest outdoor gathering of Arab Americans in the US, to Ford Woods Park.
Authorities say the decision to change the festival's location is to avoid lawsuits by Christian missionaries.
Missionaries have sued the city on claims of restricting their rights to free speech at the festival, which has been a magnet for Christian missionaries in the past years.
But recently, tension engulfed the international event after missionaries attacked festival goers.
In 2009, a group of missionaries yelled at visitors that they were going to hell because they were Muslims.
Some missionaries also posted videos of the encounters, sparking complaints about the Muslim community in Dearborn.
Tension escalated the following year, resulting in the arrest of a number of missionaries, who hit back by filing lawsuits against the city on claims of restricting missionaries' freedom of expression at the festival.
Some have said that treatment at the festival proves that Dearborn is under Islamic Shari`ah, a claim the mayor has repeatedly dismissed as ludicrous.
The situation worsened last year after a group of missionaries brought a pig's head mounted on a pole along with signs that denigrated Islam and Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him).
Angry with the behavior, some Muslim attendees hurled objects at the missionaries, including water bottles.
Local authorities have vowed measures to prevent antagonizing festival goers by Christian missionaries.
"We're not going to tolerate people insulting children, making gross statements ... antagonizing children," Mayor O'Reilly said.
"We're going to make sure kids behave. But we're also going to make sure that adults behave. Everybody's got to behave."
The Dearborn mayor said that in the past no one had any problems" at the festival.
But over the past few years, "it became a target for people who have a different agenda. They weren't here in the spirit of the festival."
Organizers say they support a shift of the festival's location to prevent any religious tension at the event.
Imad Hamad, regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and a Dearborn resident, said he supports the move.
Fay Baydoun, executive director of the chamber, said his group is working with the city on negotiating a price to rent out the park for the festival.
But Majed Moughni, a Dearborn attorney and activist, is worried that festival goers could continue to face hostile speech from some missionaries.
"They can still stand on the city's sidewalks ... or in front of the entrance," said Moughni, who disagreed with the police arrest of missionaries in 2010.
"You can't violate someone's free speech."
Dearborn has the highest concentration of Arab-Americans in the US, many of them Muslim, making it a magnet for some Christian missionaries.
The United States is home to an estimated Muslim minority of between seven to eight million.
Since 9/11, US Muslims have become sensitized to an erosion of their civil rights, with a prevailing belief that America was stigmatizing their faith.The United States is the world's largest source of Christian missionaries with a reported 46,000 proselytizers worldwide followed by South Korea.