Assyrian Church keeps the faith after fire

20091019_043307_churchfire1.jpgTARZANA: Parishioners vow to rebuild sanctuary consumed by flames Friday.
By Dana Bartholomew and Susan Abram, Staff Writers
FIRE AFTERMATH–A parishioner takes a moment alone before entering the community room at St. Mary Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in Tarzana. Sunday services took place in the community room at the church after fire destroyed the sanctuary on Friday. ( Photo by David Crane/Staff)
TARZANA – They had survived a millennium of religious persecution and the exodus from the Middle East.
But on the first Sunday after a raging fire tore through the Tarzana sanctuary that many considered their second home, members of the San Fernando Valley’s largest Assyrian church said they will do as they have always done: stand strong in their faith.

“We lost all of it – but we did not lose our hope,” said Ramona Youhanna, 25, of Northridge, one of hundreds who celebrated Mass on Sunday in a makeshift sanctuary at St. Mary’s Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East.

“We are going to start from zero, but we will make it better than it was. This is God’s house, Jesus’ house.”

The church caught fire at 6:35p.m. Friday at 5955 Lindley Ave., sending flames 150-feet from its soaring stained glass windows into the darkening sky.

Although some parishioners were attending Bible and Aramaic study classes that evening, and worshippers had been arriving for services, no one was injured in the blaze, firefighters said.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

On Sunday, hundreds of parishioners filed past what had been their church – its white brick facade now a gaping black hole; its pews, velvet drapes, vestments and choir robes now ash and charred remains.

Many wiped away tears as they entered the incense-filled banquet hall to recite ancient chants, pray and hear words of comfort by the Rev.
George Bet-Rasho, the pastor of St. Mary’s Parish.
“We have faith,” said Helen Bet-Rasho, the pastor’s wife. “As Assyrian people, we are used to things like this. They kill our people, we come out stronger. They burn our churches, we rebuild them better.”

In recent years, St. Mary’s has seen more members come from war-torn Iraq, as Christians from their ancestral homeland continue to escape heightened insurgency that has destroyed their churches.

“It is heartbreaking,” Helen Bet-Rasho added. “But we really believe when one door closes, another great door opens. We’re looking forward to seeing what’s behind the new one. God is good.”

Before the service, a dozen Los Angeles firefighters from Tarzana Station 93 chopped holes in the scarred church roof to inspect the remains.

One firefighter said that, despite the potential for arson, investigators had yet to find evidence of foul play.

But a spokesman with the Fire Department said the House of Worship Task Force continues to investigate, and may know the cause of the blaze, as well as cost of the damage, in the next few days.

The task force was formed in 1996 after several houses of worship in the Southeast part of the nation burned as a result of arson. Concerned about the trend, the Fire Department’s arson investigation section launched a task force in Los Angeles with various law enforcement agencies.

Some Assyrian church members were incredulous that anyone in America would want to harm their church.

“We were raised in the church since childhood. I felt like my mother was on fire,” said Benyamin Khamis, 63, of Encino, a native of Iraq.

“If there is somebody who did this, it’s for no rhyme or reason.”

Assyrians are the indigenous people of Mesopotamia, presently Iraq, where the last and largest concentration of Aramaic-speaking people in the world have lived for thousands of years. Those who follow the Church of the East trace their origins to 33 A.D. when it was founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle as well as Saint Mari and Saint Addai.

Since the Valley congregation moved to its Tarzana location from North Hollywood 12 years ago, the church has served hundreds of Assyrians and was the first to open a school and host the Valley’s first Assyrian festival.

For the community, the church also helps to preserve the Assyrian language and culture that some worry could become extinct.

What’s important is not the fire that destroyed their sanctuary, St. Mary’s Parish members said. It’s the unity of the church.

“Sadness and happiness, because we are all gathered together, we will all stand together,” said Gladis Barko, 62, of Granada Hills, a choir member.

“It is very emotional, seeing our God’s house burning. But to have faith – we are the church.”