Palestinian-Born Pastor Runs for Office

Rev. Khader El-Yateem will officially launch his run for the 43rd district council seat in Brooklyn on Sunday Feb. 26. (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

[Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect the fact the Rev. Khader El-Yateem has lived in Dyker Heights, not Bay Ridge as originally reported, for 22 years.]

As concerns continue to grow about the Trump administration’s policies toward Muslims and people of Middle Eastern descent, a Brooklyn Palestinian is making New York political history.

This Sunday morning will begin no differently than others for Rev. Khader El-Yateem. The Bethlehem-born Lutheran pastor will wake up early and at 11 a.m. will lead services at Salam Arabic Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge, where his congregation represents a diverse group of Middle Eastern Christians, including Lebanese, Syrians, Egyptians, and Palestinians like himself.

But this Sunday will also represent a new day for Rev. El-Yateem, 48, as that afternoon he will formally announce his already-confirmed candidacy for the 43rd District City Council Seat, encompassing Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights and Fort Hamilton. El-Yateem joins an already crowded race, including Assembly member Peter Abbate, Justin Brannan, Kevin Peter Carroll and Nancy Tong. All five are vying for term-limited Vincent Gentile’s vacating seat. El-Yateem is the first Palestinian American to run for public office in New York.

“I try not to take Sundays off,” says El-Yateem, sitting at a table near the back of his church. Even though Sunday will be a busy day for El-Yateem and his fledgling team, he says he will remain a pastor to his congregation.

While this is El-Yateem’s first foray into electoral politics, he is no stranger to organizing. He has been active in the Arab American Association of New York – where he serves as treasurer – for years, and has worked in various community projects, including Community Board 10, Community Understanding for Racial and Ethnic Equality and the Bay Ridge Unity Task Force. Rev. El-Yateem has also served as an NYPD liaison.

El-Yateem came to the US in 1992 through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He and his wife Grace – who celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary this year – have four children. He has lived in Dyker Heights since 1995.

El-Yateem’s decision to run coincides with Arab American Association of New York’s director Linda Sarsour’s announcement that she is resigning from the association to pursue politics on a national level. Sarsour, who was one of the co-chairs of the Jan. 21 Women’s March, is one of the most visible exponents of Arab and Muslim communities in the United States.

El-Yateem says the current political climate – with fears of growing Islamophobia and targeting of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries – influenced his decision to run.

“The Trump administration brought a lot of fear and anxiety in the Arab and Muslim community,” he says. “We have one of the largest Arab [and] Muslim communities in New York, and we don’t have any representation in government.”

El-Yateem says he never experienced discrimination or prejudice personally until 9/11. On that day, like many New Yorkers, he went to pick up his daughter – who is hearing-impaired – from school, but was barred entry to his daughter’s school by a security guard, who he believes was suspicious of him based on his appearance and accent.

El-Yateem says he wants to fight racism and Islamophobia, but his platform goes beyond those specific issues, and is largely focused on economic concerns affecting the 43rd District.

“The most important issue for our community is economic justice,” says El-Yateem.

Rev. Khader El-Yateem with his campaign field director, Kayla Santosuosso, in front of Salam Arab Lutheran Church in Bay Ridge. (Photo by Gabe Carroll for Voices of NY)

“We need our kids who are growing up to be able to live next to their families. We need to be able to afford [a] mortgage so they can buy a house.”

Consistently ranked as one of the safer neighborhoods in New York, Bay Ridge continues to offer affordable one-family apartments, which has helped keep it a tightly-knit working class community. El-Yateem wants to keep it that way.

“We need affordable housing,” he says.

“We need to make sure our community is strong, and not to lose our young people the moment they finish school, graduate, and they have to leave, because they cannot afford to buy a house, or move to an apartment in our neighborhood.”

El-Yateem says he is aware of how his Christian, Arab and Palestinian identities make him a unique candidate, but says his intention is to reach out to all residents of the 43rd district, including those who voted for President Trump this past November.

“My whole ministry in this community was done as a bridge-builder,” says El-Yateem.

“I’m going to knock on every door.”

It’s time that members of the Arab and Muslim community in New York be more assertive in city politics, the candidate says. Too often, he says, the community has been courted for political support and donations, but then left to fend for itself.

Campaign field director Kayla Santosuosso agrees with El-Yateem.

“We had elected officials who, their strongest contribution to the community has been to, you know, limit the number of hookah bars that are in this neighborhood. We have our Republican congressman who is unabashedly supporting the Muslim ban unconditionally,” says Santosuosso, who is a former special projects consultant at the Arab American Association of New York.

El-Yateem says that his campaign to build a “community of welcome” has strong support, and he is optimistic about his chances of winning.

“We have a lot of committed people in this community, both financially, and they are putting their power, and volunteering to make this happen,” he says.

Santossuolo shares his optimism, saying that members of the community had encouraged El-Yateem to run, and that there has been a “long internal conversation” with the immediate community about how to run the campaign.

New Yorkers aren’t used to members of the clergy running for office. El-Yateem – who cleared his run with Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo of the Metropolitan New York Synod of the ELCA before throwing his hat in the ring – points to Scandinavian countries, where Lutheran clergy are mainstays of political life. If elected, Rev. El-Yateem will not be alone: City Council member Fernando Cabrera from the Bronx 14th District is a senior pastor at New Life Outreach, a Christian congregation.

El-Yateem says his political role model is a fellow Bethlehemite.

“I look at the person of Jesus as my politician hero,” he says, smiling.

“I follow in his footsteps.”

Gabe Carroll is a 2016 graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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