Tour of Arab Chicagoland, Mosque, Church and business section

Tour of Arab Chicagoland, Mosque, Church and business section

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Tour of Arab Chicagoland, Mosque, Church and business section

By Ray Hanania

Please note: The City of Chicago no longer sponsors the tour of Little Arabia. The last city-sponsored tour was in 2009. I now can arrange private tours for groups. Please email me at and I will be happy to discuss the possibility of arranging such a tour. Thanks and sorry.

(Note: This essay on Chicago’s Arab History is based on the popular and sold-out tours Ray Hanania conducted each year in May, beginning in 2006 as a part of the City of Chicago Great Chicago Places & Spaces. The tour focused on Arab American history in Chicago but addressed the wider aspects of the Chicagoland Arab American Muslim and Christian communities. It is also based in part on his new book “Arabs of Chicagoland” from Arcadia Publishing.)

LAST CHICAGO-SPONSORED ARAB CHICAGO TOUR WAS IN 2009 — Future tours are arranged for special occasions and groups only.

Tours may vary but will include a stop at a Mosque, an Arab Church and a luncheon for Middle Eastern food. The following is the tour given for the City of Chicago program:

Most people associate the Arab community with the Southwest Side and several controversies involving community protests against mosques proposed in Palos Heights and Orland Park.

And while these issues remain constantly in the headlines, Chicagoland has another major population of Arabs who live on Chicago’s Northwest Side centered in Albany Park.

While the Arabs on the Southwest Side were predominantly Muslim in the 1990s, the Arabs on the Northwest Side were Great Chicago Descriptionpredominantly Christian. Among both communities are Christians who live on the Southwest side and suburbs and Muslims who live on the Northwest side and suburbs, too.

Their presence is magnified by other factors. For example, Chicagoland’s Muslim community not only includes Arabs but also Asians, Pakistanis and Indians among other ethnic and racial groups who practice the Islamic faith.

And Christian Arabs, especially on Chicago’s Northwest Side, also have a magnified presence by virtue of the fact that also living among them is another non-Arab Middle Eastern community of Christians who hail from Iraq and who identify with the ancient race of Assyrians. (If you saw the film the “Passion of the Christ,” the language used in the film, Aramaic, is also the language that most Assyrians still speak today.)

There are more than 100,000 Assyrians who live on the North and Northwest side of Chicago and suburbs. They have their own churches, social clubs, newspapers and political organizations. Several have held political office. And, the wife of Chicago Alderman Patrick O’Connor is also of Assyrian heritage.

Chicagoland’s Arab population includes about 185,000 Arabs in Chicago and with the majority located in the suburban parts of Cook County around Chicago. There are about 275,000 more Arabs who live in the five counties around Cook County including Lake, Kendall, Will, and DuPage. (These numbers vary and are only estimates. The U.S. Census does not include the category of “Arab” in its tabulations so there is no official census or breakdown of where the Arab Americans live.)

About half of the Arabs of Chicagoland are Christian and half are Muslim, reflecting the balance that exists nationally among the 4.5 million Arab Americans. The majority of Chicago’s Arabs originate from Palestine, probably as many as 70 percent, although there are large communities of Jordanians, Lebanese and some smaller pockets of Egyptians, Syrians, Arab Iraqis and Arabs from the Saudi Arabian peninsula.

Great Chicago Places TourThe majority of Palestinian Arabs come from two adjacent West Bank cities of Ramallah and Beitunia, located 10 miles north of Jerusalem. Beitunia historically is a Muslim city and Ramallah historically is a Christian city, although the populations have shifted significantly over the years as a result of the Israeli occupation and the movement of refugees from Palestinian lands that became Israel in 1948.

It is also interesting to remind readers that while there are more than 7 to 8 million Muslims in the United States, but only 20 to 22 percent are Arab. The largest majority of Muslims in Chicago and the United States are actually African American Muslims and followers of the Nation of Islam.

Muslims and Arab Christians are very closely associated and they work together often. Generally, the Muslims are congregated by nationality. The majority of Muslims on the North Side and Suburbs are Albanian and Bosnia. The majority of the Muslims on the West Side are Indian and Pakistani. The majority of the Muslims on the Southwest Side are Palestinian Arab. The majority of Muslims on the South Side, are African American.

You will find Arabs of all origins living throughout Chicago and the Chicago suburbs in and among these overlapping national concentrations. But, there is very little documented information about the history of Arabs in Chicago, their experiences and their current activites. Chicago has no monuments, streets (other than a few “honorary” streets) nor do they have have official, city-sponsored Arab events to acknowledge their presence.

Chicago’s Northwest Side boasts the heart of the Arab community, where it was founded more than a half century ago.

Chicago’s Christian Arabs
(North & Northwest Side of Chicago)

Most of the Arab Churches and Arab mosques are located in the suburbs around Chicago, but a few are located in the city itself. Part of the reason is that Arabs and Muslims continually face discrimination often driven by misunderstanding. To build a mosque or Arab church in Chicago, you must obtain a zoning change to permit a religious house of worship. Oftentimes, as a result of misunderstanding and the international political conflicts, these zoning changes are denied or difficult to obtain. As a consequence, most Arab churches and Mosques are located in the suburbs.

StEliasChurchEfforts to open Arab Churches and Mosques has been met with resistance, as several high profile cases in Palos Heights, Orland Park and elsewhere have shown.

Yet Arab Christians and Muslims are driven by a dedication to family, respect for human dignity and also peace.

In “Little Arabia,” which can be defined geographically by the general borders of Pulaski on the west, Peterson on the north, the lake on the east and Irving Park Road on the south, consist of Muslims and Christians nestled in among other Chicago ethnic groups including Hispanics, Poles, Italians and Irish.

One Arab Christian church is located inside this geographic area. St. Elias Arab American Church at 1500 W. Elmdale(Peterson Ave) was founded in 1995 by Rev. Rimon Said. In 2001, St. Elias was officially recognized by the Metropolitan Chicago synod as an ELCA congregation.

The Parishioners of St. Elias are Lutheran Christians. Most Arab Christians are Orthodox and began by associating in the United State with the Greek Orthodox Church, later breaking away and identifying as “Antiochian Orthodox” Christians. The largest Antiochian Orthodox Church is St. George Church located in suburban Cicero, at 60th Court and Roosevelt Road.

St. Elias shares church space in one of Chicago’s 2nd oldest Lutheran churches, Immanuel Lutheran Church. It was founded by Swedish immigrants in 1853, the first Swedish Lutheran Church in America. The church was built in 1869 in Old Town, only to burn down in 1871 during the great Chicago fire which swept up homes as far north as Fullerton. More than 90 percent of the StEliasChurchSigncongregation was left homeless by the fire. In the 1920s, a new church was built at its current location at 1500 W. Elmdale (Elmdale , which is east of Clark Street, is called Peterson Avenue west of Clark Street.)

The wife of the church’s second pastor, Carl Evald, was a close friend of Susan B. Anthony who would often come to the church as a guest.

Augustana College was founded in the church associated with Augustana Hospital and associated with Lutheran General Hospital. This past year, Father Said returned to minister in Palestine and in Israel. He was succeeded by Pastor Gabi Aelabouni. Rev. Aelabouni is a Palestinian born near Nazareth in the Holy Land and was ordained by the ELCA in July 2005.

Immanuel Lutheran Church serves as a “mother Church” to St. Elias and often other ethnic Christian communities. There are as many different ethnic groups represented in the congregation and among members of the St. Elias congregation.

Dina Tannous, a president of the St. Elias Congregation, explained that the majority of the Christian Arabs who attend the church services are actually Assyrian who come to hear their service conducted in the Arabic language. Ms. Tannous indicated that the church has about 62 members who come from a wide region around the church. The church services are conducted in Arabic, one of the few inside Chicago’s city limits.

As a noted, nearby just west of Clark Street on Peterson Avenue is one of the city’s most popular Middle Eastern restaurants and night clubs, Julianas which is owned by Assyrian immigrant Albert “Ali” Baba. The most popular night for dancing, dining and enjoying the musical and belly dancing entertainment is Saturday. The show generally starts late in the evening at around 11 PM. Yet the restaurant night club is also packed and holds more than 500 guests.

Like many Arab and Middle Eastern Restaurants, it features Sheesha Pipes, which smolder dried fruit non-tobacco products that fill the room with a sweet aroma.

The Mission Statement of St. Elias Church reads:

The congregation strives to be a welcoming place for all people of Arabic or Middle Eastern heritage. The people of St. Elias know what it means to be a new immigrant or refugee. St. Elias provides community, support and warm hospitality. St. Elias is a place to find faith, heritage and culture.

Many of St. Elias’ members are immigrants, refugees, or first-generation Americans. Their countries of origin range from Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq in the Middle East to Egypt and the Sudan in Africa.

The congregation meets for worship in Arabic (with an English translation available) and for fellowship; Arabic classes are offered to adults and children in the congregation and community. The congregation also offers English as a Second Language courses.

St. Elias also offers assistance for immigration services through Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Services.

Many more programs and opportunities to be involved are available.

Their web page is located at Their email address is:

Their church services are held in the afternoon on Sundays beginning at 1:30.

Another Christian Arab church, the Chicago Arabic Baptist Church, is located just west of St. Elias on Chicago’s westerly-most border at 7654 W. Berwyn Ave. The largest Arab church in the Chicago area is St. George Antiochian Church in west suburban Cicero, Illinois.

Islam in Chicago
(Muslims on Chicago’s North and Northwest Side)

Not far from St. Elias Christian Arab church is one of Chicago’s largest and most beautiful Muslim Mosques, the Muslim Community Center located at 4380 N. Elston, near the intersection of Pulaski Road and Montrose Avenue.

The MCC caters to the religious needs of Muslims from a wide region, the majority of which are non-Arab including immigrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in Asia. But, many Palestinian Arab Muslims also worship at the MCC. The Imam of the MCC is Imam Faisal.

While Christian Arab services coincide with traditional Christian services held on Sunday mornings, Muslims generally worship as a community on Friday afternoon.

MCCThe MCC features a massive prayer center, a library, conference rooms and rooms for political activism such as voter registration. The MCC also has many immigration support services.The MCC hosts five daily prayers, a fulltime school for Muslim students all week long, and interfaith activities to outreach and strengthen understanding with other religious faiths and communities.

Sister Mary Ali, who is a MCC Da’wah worker (Da’wah is an Arabic word meaning inviting and informing people about Islam), offered more details on the history of the MCC.

The MCC was founded around 1971. It was originally located on Kedzie Avenue just north of North Avenue. At that time, the congregation consisted mostly of Muslims who originated from India and Pakistan, although there were a few Arabs involved, Sister Mary Ali explains.

After a long search for a larger and more permanent center, the MCC purchased the building on Elston Avenue in 1981. The MCC’s Community Development Committee conducted a survey to identify where most of the Muslims lived on Chicago’s North and Northwest Side in order to make the center centrally accessible to all. They also had surveyed the available land throughout Chicago and settled on the Elston Avenue location.

Sister Mary Ali acknowledges that there was some resistance to the Muslims to building a mosque in Chicago, although she says “It was probably less of a problem then than it is today.”

She noted that getting a zoning change to convert property zoned for business or commercial use to be used for religious purposes was not always easy. They were able to get the zoning approved for the Elston Avenue location, she notes. Today the MCC has about 1500 members.

The MCC began a “Sunday School” for the children at Kedzie Avenue and then moved it to the new location on Elston. The congregation continued to grow through the 1980s and 1990s.

In the late 1980’s MCC Muslims began to look for a place to have a fulltime school to teach Islamic subjects in addition to the regular elementary curriculum. A site was located at 8601 N. Menard in Morton Grove and it was purchased.

This school housed a fulltime elementary school as well as a weekend school. Two or three years ago, the school needed to expand due to overcrowding and the decision was made to build a masjid in addition to adding several classrooms. Ground breaking occurred within the last year.

In early 2000, a large group of Arab Muslims also joined the MCC congregation as they, too, sought to build their own mosque and Islamic center. Later, the Arab Muslims found a location at Belmont just west of Narragansett which today serves as a Muslim Center.

Sister Ali also helps to manage the MCC’s youth summer camp and, she is a member of the MCC Board of Directors. She emphasized the doors of the MCC are always open to individuals who are Muslim and also practicing other religions.

The MCC was originally a theater that was later converted into a banquet hall. The center has a large prayer room..

For more information on the Muslim Community Center on Elston, you can contact Mary Ali at

Little Arabia
(Chicago’s concentration of Arabs on the Northwest Side)

Almost anywhere in this region, you might see an Arabian or Muslim owned restaurant or a business.

MataamRestBut the commercial heart of the Arab community is located at the intersection of Lawrence and Kedzie Avenues.

There are many restaurants there that serve all kinds of food. Two of the most popular include Mataam al-Mataam (“Restaurant of Restaurants”) at the Northwest corner of the intersection at Lawrence and Kedzie, which was renamed “Al Mirah: sometime in 2008, and SamirAmis Restaurant further south on Kedzie across the railroad tracks.

The owner of Mataam al-Mataam at the time, Boutros (Peter), is an Assyrian Iraqi but his menu was typical of what one might find in the Middle East and Arab World. The restaurant is open 24 hours every day. You will usually find a satellite television set tuned to al-Jazeera, the 24-hour Arabic language Middle East news channel that is the most popular news channel of Arabs living in Chicago. The owner of SamirAmis, Yusef Abraham, is Assyrian also from Lebanon.

Just south of Lawrence Avenue on Kedzie is the Lebanese restaurant al-Khayameih, 4748 N. Kedzie Ave. Here, you might meet the manager, Charlie, who was born in Beirut an immigrated to Chicago from Lebanon.

The restaurant is owned by three brothers who also operate a very popular and large Middle East grocery store and butcher shop next door in the same building just to the south.

KedzieLawrenceWalking up and down Kedzie and Lawrence Avenues will bring you deep into the heart of the sights and smells of real Arab World life.

Arabic writing and English writing will be found on most buildings, identifying the services of the patrons such as legal services, real estate services, and more. There is also a hardware store that also sells traditional Middle East items such as Olive Wood carved camels, mother-of-pearl depictions of the Last Supper, and sheesha pipes.

Just north about a half mile is the golden dome and large cross of a Catholic Church.

(Ray Hanania is the author of “Arabs of Chicagoland” published in 2005 by Arcadia Publishing, and is an Arab American journalist and historian. He can be reached at


Islam comes from an Arabic root word meaning “peace” and “submission.” Islam teaches that one can only find peace in one’s life by submitting to Almighty God (Allah) in heart, soul and deed. The same Arabic root word gives us “Salaam alaykum,” (“Peace be with you”), the universal Muslim greeting.

A person who believes in and follows Islam is a “Muslim” which means one who submits.

Islam has more than 1 billion followers worldwide more than 20 percent of the world’s population. It is an Abrahamic, monotheistic faith, along with Judaism and Christianity. Less than 10% of Muslims are in fact Arab. Allah is the proper name for God and is an Arabic word which means “God.” Allah is not a different God than the God of Christians and Jews.

The basic beliefs of Muslims fall into six main categories, which are known as the “Articles of Faith”:

  • Faith in the unity of God
  • Faith in angels
  • Faith in prophets
  • Faith in books of revelation Faith in an afterlife
  • Faith in destiny/divine decree

The “five pillars” of Islam: In Islam, faith and good works go hand-in-hand. A mere verbal declaration of faith is not enough, for belief in Allah makes obedience to Him a duty. These are five formal acts of worship which help strengthen a Muslim’s faith and obedience. They are often called the “Five Pillars of Islam.”

  • Testimony of faith (Kalima)
  • Prayer (salah)
  • Fasting (Sawn)
  • Almsgiving Zakat)
  • Pilgrimage (Hajj

The first mosque was the house of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina. This was a simple rectangular (53 by 56 m) enclosure containing rooms for the Prophet and his wives and a shaded area on the south side of the courtyard which could be used for prayer in the direction of Mecca.

This building became the model for subsequent mosques which had the same basic courtyard layout with a prayer area against the qibla wall.

The first of these is the minbar, or pulpit, which was used by Muhammad to give sermons, and an Imam who leads proayers. A later introduction was the mihrab or prayer niche which was first introduced by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid in the eighth century.

Other features include the ablutions facilities and a central pool or fountain and the minaret which seems to make its first appearance in the Abbasid period. A facility for purification (udu, which is conducted before prayer, is important as well. Muslims purify their bodies with water then carry out their prayer. Water flowing from fountains (hauz) in the courtyard (sahan) is not only important for ritual purposes but it effectively creates a pure and clean atmosphere.

Also during this formative period the maqsura was introduced which was designed to provide privacy and protection to the ruler and also possibly to give him added mystery.

Muslims, who are considered to be equal in the eyes of God, pray collectively, lining up parallel to the qibla wall, being led by the imam.

A tower (minaret, minar), from which a call for prayer can be announced, is not necessarily essential, however, it is a facility often seen in mosques. In Muslim towns, the voice of muazzin (a person who recites a call for prayer) reverberates from the minaret in the mosque before each prayer five x a day.

Also, in Islam it is not considered to be good for women to be seen by males outside of her own family. Thus a special area for female prayer (zanana) may be provided in mosques.


Jihad — moral struggle Madrassa – school

Sunni versus Shi’ite — The Qu’ran does not distinguish differences between Muslims. However, men do and in the middle of the 7th Century following the death of the Prophet Muhammed, there was a disagreement over who was the successor to Muhammed.

Sufism is a mystic tradition within Islam and encompasses a diverse range of beliefs and practices dedicated to divine love and the cultivation of the heart. “Sufism” has been defined as a type of knowledge by the great Sufi masters. Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq, a 14th century Sufi who wrote “The Principles of Sufism” defined Sufism as, “a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.” Ibn ‘Ajiba, one of the best known Sufi masters defined Sufism as “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inward from filth and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits.”

Hutba – initial prayer (citing name of ruler at the time was traditional)

Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born in AD570, the posthumous son of a Hashemite from Mecca (Makkah). His mother died when he was about six and he was brought up by his grandfather, who had him set up as a merchant by the time he was 25. His teachings began around 612, but despite gaining some followers he was rejected by the townsmen and was forced to leave for Medina (Madinah) in 622.

For the next decade he organized the Islamic creating a community based on the will of God. His activities led to the persecution of the early Muslims, followed by years of conflict, mainly with the Meccans, as the number of Muslims increased. By his death in 632, many Arabian tribes had either joined or been subdued by the Muslims.

Within a year of the Prophet’s death, the Muslims had advanced into Iraq, and by the early years of the following century had reached the River Indus and the Pyranees.

In the context of this remarkable expansion, the victory of Charles Martel at Tours (732) must rank as one of the most decisive in history. Most of the countries which were conquered during this period still remain Islamic or else have large Muslim populations.

Great Chicago Places and Spaces Tour of Arab Chicago:

The Tour ran for six years. The last tour was held May 17-18, 2009, two tours each day (four total)

The Tour was 2 1/2 hours long. Tours may vary with different locations selected. But all tours include a stop at a Mosque, a Christian Church and a Middle East food restaurant. Discussions are conducted at each location and while traveling during the entire 2 1/2 hours.

The Chicago tour originated at Wabash and Jackson Street. Registration is required. There are two tours, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. The first tour began in 2006, and continues EVERY YEAR.

The tour first took visitors to the St. Elias Arabian Church at 1500 Elm Street (Peterson Street becomes Elm Street on the east side of Clark Street.)

From there, we travel to the Muslim Community Center at 4380 N. Elston Ave. (near Monstrose and Pulaski Rd.) There, a gracious member of the MCC will discuss Islam, the Arab and non-Arab Islamic community and the history of that Mosque. There is more information on the mosque at

From there, the Trolley Car (which seats 32-40 people) travels past the heart of Chicago’s Northwest Side Arab American community at Lawrence and Kedzie.


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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning political and humor columnist who analyzes American and Middle East politics, and life in general. He is an author of several books.

"I write about three topics, the Middle East, politics and life in general. I often take my life experiences and offer them in an entertaining way to readers, and I take on the toughest topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict and don't pull any punches about what I feel is fair. But, my priority is always about writing the good story."

Hanania covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).

Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at, and at, and at He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper,, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

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, Hanania 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. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

His writings have also been honored by two national Awards from ADC for his writing, and from the National Arab American Journalists Association.

The managing editor of Suburban Chicagoland Online News website, Hanania's columns also appear in the Southwest News Newspaper Group of 8 newspapers.

Click here to send Ray Hanania and email.

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Visit this link to read Ray's column archive at the ArabNews,com
Ray Hanania