Syriac Festival exhibits close ties to heritage, homeland

The Syriac Orthodox congregation in the Roanoke Valley celebrated with music and meals.

Posted: Saturday, August 23, 2014 5:29 pm

As members of Roanoke’s Syrian community gathered for a festival Saturday, the dancing to Mediterranean music and the feasting on hummus and lamb kabob went on — but against a more somber backdrop.

Just one day before the second annual Syriac Festival began at St. Philoxenus of Mabug Syriac Orthodox Church, there was news that the United States was considering military action in Syria.

On Friday, a senior White House official raised the possibility of a broader American military campaign that would target an Islamic extremist group’s bases in Syria.

“Of course, we are afraid for our people,” said the Rev. Andrew Bahhi, the priest of the small orthodox Christian church near Cloverdale, where many members of the congregation have family and friends still living in Syria.

The church, which has about 70 Syrian members, has been active in supporting its growing community in the Roanoke area and maintaining close ties with loved ones in Syria, where a three-year civil war is raging. Last year, some parishioners were active in local protests against the possibility of U.S. military intervention in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian government.

Although the United States has so far avoided military force in Syria, the topic has been receiving more attention recently with gains in the country by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, a terrorist organization that last week beheaded an American journalist in retaliation for U.S. air strikes in Northern Iraq.

“As Christians, we don’t like bloodshed. Nobody likes that,” said Ayeda Sati, a member of the church who organized Saturday’s festival.

Still, Sati worries that interjecting U.S. military force into the already complicated situation in Syria would only make things worse. “More people would be killed,” she said.

Many members of the congregation are loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. They say he provided protections to Christians that no longer exist as the government battles with a rebel opposition that has been infiltrated by Islamic extremists from other countries.

“They are all foreigners. They flood the country and kick people out of their homes,” said Shabo Karkenny, a member of the congregation who attended Saturday’s festival. “People don’t realize how disturbing it is to have those types of groups over there.”

Karkenny said he believes Assad has gotten a “bad rap,” and that the role played so far by the United States has created a “power vacuum” that has allowed terrorist groups to enter the country.

But on Saturday, the most that members of St. Philoxenus could do was carry on with the festival, a fundraiser for the church that also provides help for those in need in Syria. About $7,000 was raised at last year’s festival from the sale of Mediterranean food, drinks and desserts.

“We just pray for peace,” Sati said. “That is our main issue.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.