Romany Erian Melek Hetta was trying to escape discrimination. Persecuted and threatened in Egypt for being Coptic Christian, he came to the United States a few years ago to practice his faith freely.
But last January at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, Hetta alleges in a lawsuit that he was singled out for being Middle Eastern, held captive by security guards, and referred to the FBI as a possible terrorist in an inquisition that threatened his freedom all over again.
“My plan was to go sightseeing, and the next thing I know, I'm in a room full of security officers,” Hetta, a 30-year-old university lecturer, told BuzzFeed News.
The museum — a $400 million warren of scriptural exhibits backed by white evangelical conservatives — is trying to attract more visitors of color in a bold rebranding, but Hetta says he was racially profiled, and illegally detained, setting off an ordeal that lasted for months.
Despite visiting the museum with his Christian church group, museum guards questioned if he was actually Christian, according to his complaint filed Thursday in DC Superior Court by the group Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.
Guards demanded Hetta turn over his identification, surreptitiously copying it, and sent the copy to the FBI with a warning that he “might be a terrorist or security threat,” the complaint continues. FBI agents arrived at his home two months later, questioning his landlord and roommate, before Hetta agreed to questioning to clear his name and preserve his asylum claim.
“Reporting me to the FBI is all just terribly wrong,” Hetta, who is seeking a green card, said in an interview. “Once people act on their racism and hate, and engage in a discriminatory behavior, that's illegal.”
Hetta and his lawyers are asking a judge to rule that museum officials racially profiled and defamed him. The complaint argues that the museum staff also violated his rights to equal treatment under federal law, and illegally seized his ID in violation of his constitutional rights under the Fourth Amendment.
“Based on racial and ethnic attributes, [the museum] caused Mr. Hetta to be consigned to a Kafkaesque nightmare that has now placed him in fear for his future and his security,” the complaint says.
Heather Cirmo, a spokesperson for the museum, told BuzzFeed News in response to the allegations, “The museum is aware of this case but does not comment on ongoing legal matters.”
The Museum of the Bible is currently trying to bring in more people of color and distance itself from the conservative political agenda of its white evangelical backers. The museum was founded by Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby, a craft store that won a Supreme Court case to deny workers contraception coverage. The museum's launch party in 2017 was held at the Trump International Hotel.
A spokesperson told BuzzFeed News last fall that the museum’s “early objective favored a white Protestant perspective.” It is currently displaying a Slave Bible exhibit and holding events featuring black celebrities to attract a more diverse range of visitors.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, told BuzzFeed News, “If they believe what they did to Mr. Hetta was acceptable, they pose a danger to people of color who come to the museum.”
On Jan. 20, 2018, Hetta had gone to the Museum of the Bible to join his church group. But since one of his friends hadn’t arrived, Hetta waited on a bench inside the entrance near other museum visitors. Two staffers approached to ask what he was doing, but left after Hetta explained he was waiting for someone else, he alleges in the complaint. But his friend didn’t arrive, so Hetta explored the museum on his own, eventually joining the rest of his group in the museum cafe, Milk and Honey.
Security guards approached him in the restaurant, the complaint says, this time escorting him into a room and blocking the exit. The guards, the lawsuit says, “detained and imprisoned Mr. Hetta with no articulable facts connecting Mr. Hetta to criminal activity and without probable cause.”
The guards questioned Hetta for 20 to 25 minutes about why his friend hadn’t shown up, and Hetta explained the friend was new to the US and didn’t have a cellphone yet. The guards demanded to see his identification.
The suit says the museum staff compiled a dossier of information about Hetta and sent the FBI a copy of his identification. “Museum of the Bible advised the FBI that Mr. Hetta might be a terrorist or security threat,” the complaint contends. “Museum of the Bible and its employees and agents engaged in discrimination against Mr. Hetta based on their determination that Mr. Hetta’s name, reflecting his race, ethnicity and national origin, was a ‘red flag.’”
“Defendants defamed Mr. Hetta reporting him as a potential terrorist or security threat to the FBI with reckless disregard or indifference to the report’s inaccuracy, falsity and effect on Mr. Hetta,” the suit adds.
The FBI then began calling Hetta’s home, talking to his roommate, and eventually visiting the residence and interviewing his landlord.
Hetta agreed to an interview with the FBI in an attempt to clear his name and preserve his plea to remain in the United States. “When Mr. Hetta spoke to the agent it became clear that Mr. Hetta was being investigated because Defendant Museum of the Bible had reported Mr. Hetta to the FBI as a potential or actual terrorist or security threat,” the complaint says.
In a phone call this week, Hetta told BuzzFeed News that the museum was “going along with a narrative that being Middle Eastern is a sign of security threats. They will never be able to comprehend there is a Christian person who doesn't look like them.”
As for the museum’s outreach efforts to people of color, he said, “I think just being non-racist would be enough to attract more people. They don’t have to launch campaigns — just being normal human beings would attract people from different backgrounds.”