First Arab Church opens in Southwest Chicago suburbs

First Arab Church opens in Southwest Chicago suburbs

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First Arab Church opens in Southwest Chicago suburbs

By Ray Hanania

Oct. 10, 2005

Although most Americans believe the myth that all Arabs are Muslims, statistics show that the majority of Arabs in Chicagoland are Christian.

There are several Arab Christian Churches in the Chicago area, but the first one to serve the huge Christian Arab population in the Southwest Suburbs with its own church building opened 10 months ago.

Father Malek Rihani of the Church of the Virgin Mary said his church is open to Christians of all faiths, but specifically caters to Orthodox Christians. More than half of the services are conducted in the Arabic language.

“We welcome everyone of the Christian Faith; however, as an ancient Church who continues to follow the Canons of the early centuries, we can offer the sacraments only to those of the Orthodox Faith,” said Father Malek.

“Our Bishop has always recognized Chicago is a large town and needs several Arabic speaking churches. We’ve always had only one Orthodox Church and there is a need for more.”

Father Malek was ordained a priest three years ago, and was always involved with St. George Orthodox Church in Cicero. When no one took the initiative to start a second church, Father Malek said he decided to become ordained.

Last year, Father Malek said he was able to get St. Luke’s Church in Palos Hills to allow him and others to begin services there.

“They were very gracious enough to allow us to use their facilities after they were done with their services. We began our services at 1 PM.” Father Malek said.

“When we first asked to use their facilities, they asked us how many people we thought might come. We said we hoped for maybe 50. But on day one when we opened the services at St. Luke’s Church, we had more than 300 people. People couldn’t even come in. And there was no place to park. That proved to us that there is a tremendous need and motivated us to keep on going.”

Last December, with the backing of the strong Arab Christian community in the Southwest Suburbs, he said he was able to purchase the Church of the Virgin Mary at 12147 S. Cicero Ave in Alsip.

“The majority of our parishioners come from Oak Lawn and Orland Park, although worshippers come from throughout the Southwest suburbs,” Father Malek said.

“We knew they were out there and there was only one church. The need is there. And our church continues to show that we are just beginning.”

Rihani said parishioners include a variety of Arab Americans from different countries. The majority are Jordanian but include Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese of the Orthodox Faith.

Christians are a minority in the Middle East but a majority in the United States. There are about 7 million Muslims in the United States, but only 22 percent are Arab. Of the estimated 4.5 million Arabs in the United States, the majority are Christian, data shows.

The Church of the Virgin Mary held a founders’ day picnic recently that drew more than 350 people. The celebration featured a barbecue, Arabian music and a traditional Arabian Debka Folkloric Dance Troupe, as well as other entertainment for families and kids.

“I love St. George Church, but St. Mary’s is so much closer to our community here in the Southwest Suburbs,” said one picnic attendee named Issa. “Issa” commonly used as a name for Jesus, although the more accurate Arabic Christian name for Jesus is “Yasou.”

“Christians are a big community here in the Southwest Suburbs but people take us for granted. Now, with our church, they may be able to see us more and recognize that we are just as much a voice here as others.”

Father Malek said he agrees that the church will only grow in coming years and they have already started a program to raise funds to build an even bigger church building to accommodate more parishioners.

Father Malek’s brother Saed Rihani is the Deacon at the Church of the Virgin Mary. A Deacon is an ordained order of the clergy who with the permission and direction of the ordained priest can conduct services.

He also said they plan more programs, including to address social issues such as domestic violence, gangs and drugs.

“The strength of our community has to do with family. The community is not immune from the failings of the family. Drug abuse. Physical abuse. Many issues. My goal is to start a Mens Ministry to get men involved in recognizing their role as heads of the household,” Father Malek said.

“We are open to help anyone, Christian or Muslim. Muslims are welcome to come in for support,” Father Malek said.

Father Malek said the Church already provides cultural training to the youth and has a very successful Debka Folkloric Dance Troupe. He said they will soon also begin a school in Arabic that will have a Christian focus and flavor.

Services at the Church of the Virgin Mary are held every Sunday, the Divine Liturgy at 10:30 AM. On Saturday, they have an evening prayer service that begins at 5:30 PM. It is followed by confessions.


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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and Columnist who began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He covered Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992 (Mayor Daley to Mayor Daley) and has expanded to writing for newspapers around the world focussed on Middle East and American politics.

Hanania loves to write about American Arabs in politics, and focuses on Arab life in America.

Currently, he writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at He writes on American politics for the Des Plaines Valley News, Southwest News-Herald, The Regional News newspaper and the Reporter Newspapers. He also writes for the online websites and (Illinois News Network at

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hanania began in journalism as an activist publishing Chicago’s first English-language American Arab Newspaper “The Middle Eastern Voice” from 1975 through 1977. In 1976, he was hired by the Chicago community newspaper The Southtown Economist (Daily Southtown) and in 1985 was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times and covered Chicago City Hall for both. In 1993, he launched the “The Villager” Newspapers which covered 12 Southwest Chicagoland suburban regions. In 2004, he published “The National Arab American Times” monthly newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East ethnic food stores in 48 American States.

Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

Hanania’s writings have been published in newspapers around the world. Formerly syndicated by Creators Syndicate, Hanania also has written news, features and Opinion Columns for Al Jazeera English, the Jerusalem Post,, Arab News, Saudi Gazette, Newsday in New York, the Orlando Sentinel, the Houston Chronicle, The Daily Star, the News of the World, the Daily Yomimuri in Tokyo, Chicago Magazine, the Arlington Heights Daily Herald, and Aramco Magazine. His political columns are published in the Southwest News-Herald and Des Plaines Valley News, Regional News and Palos Reporter newspapers in Chicagoland. Hanania is the President/CEO of Urban Strategies Group media and public affairs consulting which has clients in Illinois, Florida, Michigan and Washington D.C.

Hanania is Palestinian Christian from prominent Bethlehem and Jerusalem families. His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.

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