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Census Protest Rejected

Posted: Saturday, October 07, 2000 at 03:47 PM CT

FRESNO — A federal judge has rejected claims by Assyrian protesters who challenged a Census Bureau decision on how the agency categorizes members of the ancient ethnic group.

District Judge Robert E. Coyle, in a ruling filed Friday, granted a government motion to throw out the challenge by the Assyrian National Congress and affiliated organizations.

Modesto Assyrian leaders were solemn when they learned of the judge's decision and promised to appeal it.

The group -- with many residents from Stanislaus County -- protested in front of the federal courthouse here in July before a hearing over the bureau's decision to change the "Assyrian" category to "Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac" in this year's census.

Assyrians objected because they believe the Census Bureau is lumping together ethnic and religious categories improperly, Modesto's Sargon Dadesho has said.

Dadesho is president of the Assyrian National Congress, which sued the Census Bureau. He was one of the leaders of the protest and said Assyrians believe the Iraqi government is behind the change.

But Coyle said the petition by the Assyrian organization was "long on rhetoric and short on the law. Merely saying so does not prove it."

The judge said there was evidence presented to the court that "Chaldean is an ethnic group as well as a religion. The Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac category tabulates ancestry or ethnicity. It does not tabulate and will not result in the publication of religious affiliations."

The decision to include the Assyrians, whose civilization dates to 661 B.C., in the combined category was made after the Census Bureau conferred with various organizations, including representatives of the Assyrian Universal Alliance and the Assyrian-American National Federation, Coyle noted in his 50-page opinion granting the government's motion to dismiss the case.

"I'm very surprised because I thought we had a strong case," said Janet Shummon, president of Bet-Nahrain, the Assyrian organization in Ceres that owns KBSV Channel 23, an Assyrian-language TV station, and KBES, an Assyrian-language radio station.

Shummon said the Census Bureau contacted only a few key people in the Universal Alliance and the National Federation. And, she said, the National Federation includes member organizations that were not contacted during the decision-making process, and those members later wrote letters to protest the label "Assyrian-Chaldean-Syriac."

Shummon and Dadesho said they will appeal the ruling.

"We don't like the idea of dividing our nation into three different nationalities, creating three nations out of one," Dadesho said.

While the ruling may not have an immediately noticeable effect on the lives of Assyrians in the United States, Dadesho said, it will have an adverse effect on the Assyrian national cause in Iraq and is similar to measures taken against Assyrians in Iraq.

"This is the same policy the Iraqi government has followed," Dadesho said. "Trying to split (Assyrians) up into three different nations to weaken Assyrians."

Dadesho said Chaldean was a name given to Assyrians who joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1551, and Syriac is the name of the ancient Aramaic language spoken by Jesus and his disciples. While Assyrians may be Christian, Dadesho said, the overwhelming majority are not Chaldean.

Coyle said the plaintiffs contended that the Census Bureau injured them by confusing them with adherents of the Chaldean religion. But "these speculative assertions do not suffice to demonstrate irreparable injury," the judge concluded.

If an injunction were granted as requested, Coyle said, it would force the Census Bureau to change procedures at a time when it is "also juggling a multitude of other responsibilities involved in counting every person in the country. ... "

Modesto Bee staff writer Sharokina Shams contributed to this report.

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