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Chicago Assyrians Combat Ignorance, Bias after Sept. 11

Posted: Saturday, December 29, 2001 at 04:54 AM CT

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The mood was noticeably somber at last weekend's Christmas brunch, usually one of the year's most festive occasions at St. John's Assyrian American Church on the North Side.

Like every year, church members sipped tea and nibbled on dolma--tiny cabbage rolls stuffed with rice--as women helped decorate trees in preparation for Christmas services.

But conversations this year moved from talk about gifts and celebrations to discussions of Middle East politics, family members in danger and, most prominently, what happened to their church in the early morning of Sept. 23.

Less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, someone threw a crumpled piece of paper through a mail slot in the church's foyer at 1421 W. Lawrence Ave., then dropped a lit match onto it.

Rev. Charles Klutz, the church's pastor, says the fire caused about $100,000 in damage, and water from firefighters' hoses ruined some carpeting, floor tiles and a few holy pictures.

But Klutz is more concerned about how the incident has affected his members.

Some parishioners think the fire was simply the work of "someone who had too much to drink" or some "rowdy neighborhood kids." But most are convinced that the fire is the work of someone who mistook the church's many Middle Eastern members for Muslims, or even for followers of Osama bin Laden.

"They must have missed the huge cross outside our church," said Sarah Benjamin, a lifelong parishioner whose parents were born in Iran. "It's bigger than our church is, though, so they must not have been looking very hard."

Regardless of who is responsible, for many St. John's members the incident has underscored their long and painful battles with discrimination and ignorance.

"People don't know who we are," said John Yadgir, an American-born Assyrian who has been a member of St. John's for almost his entire life and is now church vice president.

"We are Christians. We are loyal Americans. Many of us have fought in wars for our country, and others have come here because they were persecuted for being Christians in the Middle East."

John Hewiyou, a St. John's parishioner who immigrated to Chicago in 1978 from Iraq, experienced such persecution firsthand. He remembers the Iraqi government bombing Assyrian churches and people in his home country, referring to him as a "dirty Christian."

"Never in a thousand years would I have thought something like this would have happened in America," said Hewiyou, who still has family members living in Iraq and Jordan. "We came from a hell to a heaven. Never before have the Assyrian people felt as at home as they do in America."

Numbering just over 100,000 in the Chicago area and about 3.3 million worldwide, Assyrians are a Semitic race of people who were among the first converts to Christianity--even before the Romans. Their language is described as modern-day Aramaic, the language of Jesus.

"We speak how Jesus spoke," Klutz said. "Our people walked and talked with him."

Still, the parishioners say, because of the Assyrians' relatively small number, many people have never even heard of them.

"A man asked me what my background was, and I told him I was Assyrian-American," Yadgir said. "He said, `Isn't that a surgery?' He thought I was talking about a Caesarean delivery. I suppose this is what happens when people don't know about you."

That is all the more reason to reach out to the community more actively, Klutz says.

"This has only made our faith stronger and made us more determined to tell others who we are," he said. "The only way to fight ignorance is by educating people about us. We can't rest on our laurels any longer."

Yadgir and Hewiyou say it is important for people to know that Assyrian-Americans are loyal to their adopted country.

Yadgir, 70, is a Korean War veteran and a member of Amvets Post 5, which includes more than a dozen members of St. John's.

Hewiyou, wearing an American flag pin on his tweed sport coat, said he remembers the day when he returned to the United States in 1989 after living with his dying father in Iraq for more than a year.

"I stepped off the plane, and I just started crying and crying," he remembered. "A lady there asked me if something was the matter and I told her, `I'm just so happy to be home.'"

He cried again on the morning of Sept. 23, for a different reason, he said.

"I asked myself, `How could somebody do this to the house of God?'" he said. "I will never understand this."

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