What started out as a small church smorgasbord put women of the St. George Orthodox Christian Church in Fishers has since become a popular festival that attracts thousands or attendees.
The St. George Middle Eastern Festival is held annually at 10748 E 116th street, Fishers. This year it will run as a three-day event starting Sept. 16 from 5 to 10 p.m., Sept. 17 from 1 to 10 p.m. and Sept. 18 from 1 to 5 p.m.
The festival celebrates the Middle Eastern roots of the Orthodox Christian denomination. The church also invites those unfamiliar with the denomination and culture a look inside the gold-domed building on 116th street.
Founded in 1926, St. George was one of the first Syrian churches in Indianapolis. According to arabindianapolis.com, the church’s goal was to conduct “Easter service in the first and only Syrian church in the city.” At the time, the church had to raise $15,000 to open start its own Orthodox Church. Their first church sat where what is now Lucas Oil Stadium. And the road to its foundation was not an easy one, but the church’s long history is part of what makes the celebration of the festival so special, said Edward E. Curtis IV, a professor of religious studies at IUPUI.
“Though St. George is now a multi-ethnic church, the festival honors the Syrian and Lebanese cultural heritage of its Arabic-speaking founders — their food, dance, music, poetry, and their commitment to establish an Arab Orthodox church in Indianapolis,” Curtis said. “It is important to remember these pioneers, who showed us how, one hundred years ago, it was possible to be Arab, Christian, and American all at the same time. They prove that Indiana has always been diverse.”
The church moved to Fishers in 2013, where it conducts services and hosts the annual festival. Today, the parish is more diverse, but upon its creation it sought to provide a safe space for Middle Eastern immigrants in Indianapolis.
Riyad Bannourah, the St. George Middle Eastern Festival chairman, has been attending the church since 1982 when he first arrived in Indiana from his home in Bethlehem, Palestine. Bannourah has served as chairman of the festival since 2017. He said he has seen both the church and the festival grow in his time attending.
“Our community is growing. From a hospitality standpoint, we are welcoming them (new people) to our facility, sharing our tradition of food, music and culture,” he said. “And of course, we do a church tour, and we talk about the ancient church in Antioch, which is our mother church in Syria.”
The Rev. Anthony Yagaze, pastor of St. George, looks forward welcoming people at the festival.
“(My) favorite part of the festival is welcoming all the visitors that are coming here,” Yagaze said. “It’s also a wonderful time for us, as members of the parish, to just be together and serve others because that’s really part of the heart of our Christian life, is showing God’s love to other people through our hospitality.”
Bannourah said that the festival is a good way to illuminate Middle Eastern culture.
“It’s about understanding what the Middle East is all about and where we come from,” he said. “We try to mold that we are peaceful people, both Christians and Muslims. Not all Muslims are bad. We want to be sure that everybody understands that. We live in harmony and peace, so that’s what I want everybody to take away from this festival – that we bring people together, share with them our tradition and provide comfort that we are a very peaceful and loving community.”
IF YOU GO
Admission to the festival is free. About a dozen vendors will be on-site. Activities include live music, dancing, a marketplace, church tours, a silent auction, traditional Middle Eastern food and desserts, beer and wine and a children’s area with bouncy castles.