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.
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Dr. Mario Kozah, a professor at the American University of Beirut (AUB), says the church identifies with Syriac in terms of not just language, but also culture, history, and geography. Syriac was a dominant language in the region since well before the days of Jesus Christ and up until the 14th or 15th century.Skip to next paragraph
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That the Maronite church's official name is the Syriac Maronite Church shows how integral the language is to their identity, says Dr. Kozah, who teaches Arabic and Syriac (though not connected with Bnay Qyomo) in what he says is probably the largest university class for the Syriac language in the world.
“The name of this church gives you an indication of the way it identifies itself,” says Kozah. “Its cultural and linguistic identity is Syriac.”
A tool for division
But while the Syriac language may flow through the veins of Maronite history, not everyone believes its revival would strengthen the Maronite community.
According to Dr. Sami Nader, a professor of economics at Universite Saint Joseph in Beirut, the Maronite community has flourished the most when it has opened up and expanded economically – something done by speaking a common tongue with neighboring communities.
Kozah agrees. “What is interesting about the Maronites is that they very quickly took up Arabic, much earlier than other Syriac communities and churches, and quickly adapted.”
While spoken largely in the Levant region and parts of southern Turkey, Syriac spread as far east as India and parts of China. Today, Syriac survives in Iraq, where it is seen as an official minority language, as well as in some schools in Sweden and Israel.
Kozah believes that one of the reasons Maronites survived in such relatively large numbers in comparison with other Syriac churches is because of their early adoption of Arabic
“Only in Lebanon do you still have some kind of strength and vibrancy left in minority communities,” he says, noting that the Syriac communities in Iraq have all but disappeared, half of them in the last five or six years, as have most of those in southeast Turkey.
This vibrancy may be at least partially due to the delicate Lebanese political structure, which ensures that each religious community has fairly equal representation in the government. The complicated arrangement has mostly kept a lid on any simmering religious tensions that tore the country apart in the 1980s.
Chaer says the Maronite Church has not put enough support behind Bnay Qyomo, likely because of the political implications and concerns that the revival is a guise for drawing divides between Lebanon's various religious communities.
“We are not trying to say that we are against (other religious sects and communities in Lebanon),” says Chaer. “This is false. We want to work together.”
“We don’t have a religion problem. We just need people to understand our culture.”