Not a single seat remained empty as the Rev. Frederick Hermiz led worship through a haze of burning incense on a recent Sunday at St. Peter Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church in Phoenix.
Even the chairs in the hallway were full while still more men, women and children stood in the aisles through the two-hour service. Others spilled into the parking lot. St. Peter's opened its doors in a converted office building on 35th Avenue in 1995 with just 32 families.
In only seven years, one of the world's oldest Christian communities outgrew its new home as hundreds of Assyrian families migrated to the Phoenix area from the Midwest.
They are part of an ever-widening exodus of Assyrians from Iraq who have long experienced persecution and discrimination, most recently under Saddam Hussein.
As Assyrian-Americans, they share a strong sense of urgency to preserve their language, culture and religion that has only intensified with the looming possibility of war between the United States and Iraq.
Their worship services are conducted in Aramaic, which scholars say is a dialect of the language spoken by Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.
"Our people are being persecuted, and we are not sure if we are going to have a country to return to," said Mona Oshana, 34, a member of St. Peter Assyrian Church who grew up in Chicago.
Over the past 10 years, the Phoenix area has become home to the fastest-growing Assyrian community in the United States, said Yonadam Kanna, secretary-general of the Assyrian Democratic Movement.
The group supports replacing Saddam's regime with a democratic government that respects religious freedom. Of an estimated 450,000 Assyrians in the United States, Kanna said about 8,000 live in the Phoenix area.
"It's small but it's the fastest growing compared with other cities," he said.
Attracted by the arid climate that reminds them of their homeland, the vast majority of these Assyrians are like Edward Rehana. He came to Arizona from the Chicago area, home to this country's largest Assyrian community.
Rehana was among the first Assyrians to come to Phoenix after the insurance company he worked for transferred him to Arizona in 1985.
"The community here is growing very rapidly, one relative after another," said Rehana, 60, who now is a salesman for a windshield-repair company.
"Friends and relatives will come here for a visit from Chicago and Detroit and they'll decide to move here."
Francis Murad, 63, a retired engineering professor, moved to Phoenix from Plymouth, Mich., in August with his wife, Sharlet, 54, a physician, and their daughter, Nohra.
Murad said the warm weather attracted him to Arizona but he would not have come here if it had not been for the growing Assyrian community.
"There are a lot of warm places, but not all of them have a community," Murad said.
Murad came to the United States to study in 1959 before Saddam came to power.
"He had a lot to do with my not going back," Murad said. "I had gotten my Ph.D. with the intention of going back to teach."
Besides St. Peter's, Assyrians have established two other churches in the Valley: Mar Ibrahim Chaldean Catholic Church on East Cactus Road in Scottsdale and St. Gewargis Assyrian Ancient Church of the East on West Greenbrier in Glendale.
St. Peter's congregation is raising $4 million to $5 million to build a church on 5 acres it has purchased on 67th Avenue north of Pinnacle Peak Road in Glendale.
According to Hermiz, the pastor, the new church will be a carbon copy of the year-old Assumption Greek Orthodox Church at 82nd Street and Cactus Road in Scottsdale. It will seat 750 people, a substantial increase from the current church, which can hold only 180 people.
He predicted the congregation will grow to 1,000 families from 400 within four to six years.
"Our enemies have tried and failed to erase our heritage and our language, but as long as there is a Sunday in the week, they cannot erase our language and our faith," Hermiz said.
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