Assyrian Chaldean Festival moves to valley, draws crowd

209-live_p0921_21b1festival1standaloneprod_affiliate111.jpgBy MICHELLE HATFIELD

CERES — With the sound of drums and flutes and the smell of
roasting beef kabobs floating through the breeze, hundreds gathered to celebrate Assyrian and Chaldean culture Saturday.

It is the first time in recent memory that the Assyrian Chaldean Festival has been held in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Organizers expected 1,000 people Saturday, some from as far away as Los Angeles, to “celebrate our heritage, our culture and unity,” said the Rev. Michael Barota, head of St. Matthew Church, the site of this weekend’s festival.233-live_p0921_21b2festival3standaloneprod_affiliate111.jpg

Though the event is open to everyone, most people at the festival were Assyrians with a few curious non-Assyrians showing up for the cuisine.

Food and entertainment were the main attractions. Families munched on home-cooked kabobs, spiced rice and smashed potatoes. They watched folk dances and listened to Assyrian band Ishtar and church choir singers.

Organizers made sure to include younger generations. The youth ministry set up a booth selling DVDs of a production from earlier this year. Children, teens and twenty-somethings danced and sang during festivities.303-live_p0921_21b1festival2standaloneprod_affiliate111.jpg

“Our message to our youth is that the children contribute to our future as a church, but we also want to help the younger generation with what they’re facing on the outside,” Barota said.

Janelle Bovlos, 23, and Arbella Rasho, 18, helped with the youth ministry booth.

“It’s good to get our name out in the community,” Bovlos said. “And so people know our religion is still alive.”

“We don’t have a country, so it’s nice to have a place to come,” added Rasho.

The event was brought to Ceres through a partnership with St. Matthew in Ceres and St. Thomas in Turlock, two Assyrian Catholic churches. In the past, the nearest festival was in San Jose.

Most valley Assyrians came from Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, Barota said. Assyria dates to the Mesopotamian era. The Chaldean church features Masses in Assyrian or Aramaic languages and has different rites and rituals than Western Catholic churches.

“That’s what makes America so great — everyone can bring their culture here and present it to Americans to enrich American culture,” Barota said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339