This essay is Part Three of a three-part series by Sam Sweeney, a writer and translator based in the Middle East, who wrote most recently for the Catholic Herald about the village church of Tel Hormiz and the story it tells, of Syrian Christianity in adversity. Part One may be found here, while Part Two is here. — Ed.
Part Three – An Uncertain Future
The biggest threat to the language of Jesus in the modern world is the repeated persecution faced by its speakers, causing them to flee to safe havens far from the language’s natural home. The most disastrous result of this persecution is the affect on people’s lives and livelihoods, but it also threatens the future of an important piece of human heritage.
The historical and symbolic value of the preservation of Aramaic is obvious.
To the Church, it is a tie to the language of Christ but also to the earliest days of Christianity. To speakers of the language, it is a tie to their ancestors even before Christianity, and a source of pride from both a religious and secular perspective. But efforts to preserve the language do raise other questions for the various Syriac-speaking churches, and the wisdom of tying the Church to a national project to preserve a language.
The Church has largely been responsible for the preservation of the language in large part because the Church was solely responsible for the education of its followers until quite recent history. It was the monasteries of the Syriac-speaking churches that produced most of the surviving literature in the language. As Arabic and Turkish have been imposed as national languages on Aramaic speakers, the Church has often been the only outlet for teaching the language.
Preserving and conserving
The issue of language preservation and national identity for the Aramaic-speaking community today repeatedly cause rifts between national organizations and the various Churches that serve that community. The former see the issue of language and identity as a national issue for the people who speak it, and not the sole domain of the Church to claim as its own. They reject the conflation of the Church’s interest in preserving the language of Christ and the people’s interest in preserving the language of their secular and religious lives alike.
For the Church itself, though, the issue of using the Aramaic language also raises some uncomfortable questions.
In places like Syria and Iraq, spoken Aramaic is used overwhelming by exclusively Christian communities. There are a small number of Mandeans, a religion that follows John the Baptist, in Iraq who speak the language. Until recently there were Jewish communities using the language, but they are disappearing as the last few speakers’ descendants switch to Hebrew in modern Israel (or English in the United States, etc.).
As such, when the Church uses Aramaic, it is by and large preaching to the choir. Only those who already speak the language of Christ can hear his message.
It is natural, of course, for the Church to serve the Aramaic-speaking population in their native tongue, all the more so because it is a direct tie to the historical Christ himself. In places like the Khabur Valley of northeastern Syria, it is only logical for the Church to function in the Assyrian dialect of the language that its congregants speak. Elsewhere, however, the picture is more complicated. For example, in the city of Erbil in northern Iraq, Christians fleeing persecution in Baghdad, Mosul, and the Nineveh Plains joined an already-vibrant Christian community. Some of them speak only Arabic, others Aramaic (sureth) and Arabic both.
Lived reality in the present
The churches of the city now serve a linguistically diverse population, and have adapted to fit this reality. Some Chaldean Catholic churches, for example, offer liturgies entirely in Syriac/Aramaic, while others have many of the prayers in Syriac but the interactive parts – the readings, the homily, the announcements – are in Arabic. Others have translated almost everything to Arabic, and leave only a few prayers in Syriac. All of this reflects the linguistic profile of the diverse Christian population that now resides in the city, mostly in the suburb of Ankawa but also in Erbil itself.
But the insistence of using Aramaic in some corners does lead the church to a narrower and narrower understanding of itself and its role in society.
In places like Syria and Iraq, the Catholic churches are often very hesitant, if not unwilling, to consider converts. I know a number of Muslims looking to convert who have been met with instant rejection by Catholic churches in the Middle East. This is not the case with most Protestant churches, who use a wide variety of languages to preach, and have been met with reasonable success at gaining new followers. Several Protestant churches now serve northern Syria and northern Iraq, filled with former Muslims who have adopted the faith of Christ.
But the traditional Eastern churches, both Catholic and Orthodox, are a less welcoming home. There are many reasons for that, not least of which is fear of repercussion from the Muslim majority. But language is also an issue. For example, there are no Catholic liturgies conducted in the Kurdish language in places like Erbil or northeastern Syria, but there are Protestant services given in Kurdish.
As interest in Christianity rises among Kurds and conversions have increased, it is obvious where they will turn to, and it won’t be Rome.
Real life, real stakes
Take, for example, a recent experience of mine.
Ahead of the Pope’s visit to Erbil, I went to the nearest Chaldean church to my house to ask about the process for getting tickets to the public Mass in Erbil. I knew they had a Mass starting, entirely in Syriac/Aramaic, so I attended and found one of the deacons outside after Mass was finished. I asked him about the tickets in Arabic, and he berated me, quite aggressively, for speaking to him in Arabic.
We switched to English, but his English wasn’t very good, and it prevented a natural interaction. He explained to me that the liturgy was in Syriac and that I wouldn’t understand, because it was only for “us” to understand. I’m not sure what he assumed I thought had been going on during the celebration. Was I not aware that it was in a language I don’t speak? In any case, he did not answer my question about tickets to the Pope’s public Mass in Erbil.
I left the interaction a bit dismayed, in part because I can’t imagine that Christ’s message was ever meant to a secret message to only a select few.
I normally attend another Chaldean church in Erbil where the liturgy is conducted almost entirely in Arabic. While I like hearing Syriac and have tried without much success to learn it, there is a practical desire to understand the liturgy and enjoy the fruits of the years it took to learn Arabic. In his homilies, the priest there has regularly criticized the Chaldean Church’s insistence on using Aramaic even when serving an Arabic-speaking population. Shouldn’t the Church use the language of the people? He says it’s wrong for people to go to a liturgy in a language they don’t understand just because the Church sees it as more authentically Christian than Arabic. While the debate obviously echoes the use of Latin in the West, it is not only the prayers of the liturgy at issue but the language of things like the homily and the announcements.
This was not always the case.
The early Church of the Middle East largely used Syriac/Aramaic because that was the language of the region. It did not, however, shy away from engaging other populations in their own language. For example, Ahudemmeh was a sixth century metropolitan of the Syriac Orthodox Church renowned for his preaching among the Arabs. As his biographer says, he saw that the Arabs were evil, that their language was difficult, and that among them were barbarians and murderers. But he persisted (presumably in part by learning their difficult language), and converted many of them to the faith of Christ. He eventually converted the son of the Persian king Chosroes from Zoroastrianism, and was martyred by order of the king. It seems unlikely that Ahudemmeh would have wanted the word of Christ to be limited to those who already spoke his language.
What the future holds
Ultimately, the future of Aramaic as a living language is tied to the future of those speaking it. As the speakers of the language have fled the Middle East to America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, the language has traveled with them. But it will be difficult for it to survive so far away from its homeland, in countries where people are naturally pushed in integrate into the larger society rather than keep to themselves. The irony of the discrimination facing Aramaic-speaking communities in the Middle East is that this very separation from the rest of society has often helped preserve their language.
The numbers are startling, though inexact. In Iraq, where many but not all Christians speak Aramaic, the number of Christians has dropped from well over a million to 150,000 since the US invasion of 2003. In neighboring Syria, the Assyrian villages of the Khabur have dropped to fewer than 1000 residents after a devastating ISIS attack in 2015 and continuing instability, down from a pre-war total of about 15,000. The neighboring Syriac community has suffered mass emigration as well.
Aramaic has been spoken for more than 3000 years in the Middle East. While the future of the language is very uncertain, it nonetheless lives on. Maybe, just maybe, the Good Lord has kept watch over it so that he might one day make his return speaking the same language he spoke as he died on the Cross.
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