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Can a dying language revive Lebanon's Christian population?

Lebanon's Maronites used to play a crucial role in the region, but their power and sense of identity are waning. One organization hopes to reverse that by reviving their ancient language, Syriac.

By Justin SalhaniContributor / October 7, 2012

Pope Benedict XVI is greeted by the patriarch of Lebanese Christian Maronites, Bishara Boutros al-Rai, as Lebanon's President looks on upon his arrival at Beirut's airport, in this September 14 fie photo.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters/File

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Beirut, Lebanon

Lebanon's most prominent Christian group, the Maronites, used to be so influential that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat reportedly quipped that "The road to Jerusalem passes through Jounieh," referring to a town north of Beirut that was a stronghold for Lebanese Christian militias. 

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The quote has a certain poignancy – and nostalgia – more than 30 years later, with Maronites increasingly afraid they will be marginalized. Their population and political power have waned as their numbers dwindle – a result of emigration during the country's civil war – and birth rates rise in the Muslim community.

Lebanon has not had a census since 1932, so exact figures are hard to come by, but experts usually estimate that Maronites make up about 20 percent of the total population today, with other Christian sects making up an additional 19 percent – a huge decline from last census in 1932, which recorded Christians as a bit more than 50 percent of the population, with Maronites the largest of any of the 17 recognized sects. (Editor's note: The previous sentence has been edited to correctly reflect Lebanese Christians' proportion of the population over time.)

With the end of the civil war in 1990 and a reconfiguration of the Lebanese political system, an agreement made the prime minister's office, traditionally held by a Sunni, more powerful than the presidential office, typically held by a Maronite – a flip of the previous arrangement. The agreement also reconfigured parliamentary representation, from six Christians for every five Muslims to a 50-50 arrangement. 

The Maronites also fear that the rise of regional Islamic movements will bring discrimination and persecution – fears shared by Christians elsewhere in the region, like the Copts in Egypt and the Assyrians in Iraq – despite Lebanon's long tradition of freedom of religion.

Language of the land

Some Maronites believe that the best way to slow or end the slide into decline is to bring back Syriac, the ancient language of prayer for Christians across the Levant. The Maronite Church traces it heritage back to the 4th century and Maronites mostly spoke Aramaic in daily life up until the 13th century. 

Haytham Chaer is the president of Bnay Qyomo ("Sons of the Resurrection"), a non-governmental organization working to revive the "language of Christ" in the Lebanese Maronite community. Doing so, he believes, will strengthen their identity.

“In Lebanon we say ‘The Lebanese land shouts in Syriac',” says Mr. Chaer.

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