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9th. Annual Assyrian Festival



Fire can't destroy culture's spirit


The Assyrian Festival and Carnival shows off one more cultural feature than usual this year, on top of the traditional food, language, art, music and dance.

The ninth annual Assyrian street fair in Tarzana also displays this Middle Eastern Christian community's often-tested resiliency.

The event Saturday and today is taking place on a three-block stretch of Lindley Avenue in front of the fenced-off vacant lot where St. Mary's Assyrian Church of the East used to stand. The church burned down in October, though its school was spared. After fears of arson, the fire was determined to be accidental.

"I thought we'd lost everything," Father George Bet-Rasho, the church's leader, said Saturday afternoon as the church-sponsored festival got under way. "But that night, when I saw the people clinging together, I said, `The building is not the church. The people are the church."'

The church membership of about 1,000 families has been holding services in an adjacent banquet hall. A $4 million rebuilding project is scheduled to begin in mid-May. Consecration is expected in August 2011.

"We've been resurrected," Bet-Rasho said of the church, which moved to Tarzana from North Hollywood 13 years ago.

Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine said he drove to the scene the evening of the fire and remembers seeing the priest and church members in tears as the Assyrian community's main gathering spot lay in ruins.


"You wondered what was going to happen," Zine said. "(The festival) shows this vibrant Assyrian community is alive and well."

Assyrians will tell you they have been tested repeatedly for most of the 6,760 years of a culture that is traced to the land now known as Iraq but has no land to call its own. A mosaic wall in the Tarzana church courtyard honors Assyrian genocide victims, including 750,000 said to have died in the Ottoman Empire and Iran during World War I, 3,000 killed in Iraq in a 1933 massacre, and those killed in the current Iraq war.

Many of the volunteers and patrons at this weekend's festival say persecution of their families as religious minorities in Iraq and Iran drove them to the United States, where the biggest Assyrian communities are centered in Detroit, Chicago and the California cities of Modesto and Turlock.

Bet-Rasho estimated there are more than 40,000 Assyrians in the state and about 10,000 in the Los Angeles area.

Bet-Rasho, 46, who lives in Chatsworth with his wife and four daughters, was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and came to the United States with his family when he was 10. His father had been forced to flee after opposing the government. Saddam Hussein was vice president at the time.

Eddie Bedodo, 34, a bank employee in Bakersfield, came to the festival Saturday with his wife and two children. He was a child in Tehran, Iran, when his parents decided it was time for the family to leave.

"They were sending 11- and 12-year-olds to the war front," Bedodo said.

He said the Tarzana festival gave him a rare chance to connect with other Assyrians.

"It's just good to get together, to raise money (to rebuild) the church," Bedodo said. "It's a good cause."

Roza Youkhanneh, 59, a registered nurse in Laguna Niguel, said Assyrian churchgoers have been sustained by their "simple faith."

"They keep positive," Youkhanneh said.


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