Aramaic, language of Jesus, lives on in Cyprus

A Maronite village, isolated by the island's division, struggles to carry on the tongue.

If the people of this remote village were to travel back to Jesus' time and hear him preach, they wouldn't need an interpreter to understand the Sermon on the Mount or the parable of the prodigal son.

That's because they speak the same language as the Son of God. Literally.

Spoken in the Middle East during Jesus' time, Aramaic is still used in everyday life by most of the 130 elderly Maronite Catholics in Kormakiti, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea.

This could be good news for Mel Gibson. If the megastar has trouble finding an audience for "Passion," his upcoming movie about the final hours of Jesus' life on Earth with dialogue mostly in Aramaic, due to be released next month, the folks here should have no trouble with the original biblical tongue.

Still, Kormakiti's unique diluted version of Aramaic, called Cypriot Maronite Arabic, is in danger of extinction. Once the thriving center of the island's Maronite community, Kormakiti now has the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town.

Many of the village's stone and mud-brick houses are derelict, their wooden-beam roofs sagging and broken, letting in sunlight. There is bird song but no sound of children, because there are none left in the village. "Sometimes we're like astronauts in the sky - no one's here," says villager Elias Kassapis.

The elementary school, run by Mr. Kassapis until 1991, closed down a few years ago when the last pupil left to attend a secondary school across the island's dividing "green line" in the Greek Cypriot region.

Under Cyprus's 1960 Constitution, following independence from Britain, the island's Maronite, Armenian, and Latin religious minorities had to choose to belong to either the Greek Cypriot majority or the smaller Turkish Cypriot community. They chose the former.

After Turkey's invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974, the island's four Maronite villages found themselves on the wrong side of the cease-fire line. The majority of the 6,000-strong Maronite community was displaced, moving south.

A stalwart few stayed behind in Kormakiti and three nearby villages in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus, and are viewed by those who left as heroes protecting Maronite land.

The Rev. Antony Terzi, the village priest, negotiated with the invading Turkish Army on behalf of those who refused to be uprooted. And he said the village was safeguarded by the Pope's personal protection.

The community nevertheless suffered. Families were forced out because of lack of opportunities, especially schooling. Those who left to study in the south were allowed to visit Kormakiti but not permanently return. Nor are villagers allowed to bequeath property to outside heirs.

Providing a lifeline to those enclaved in Kormakiti are Maronite Catholics in the south of the island who send food, medicine, fuel, and other humanitarian supplies, which are delivered every two weeks by UN peacekeepers.

On weekends, Kormakiti is transformed when hundreds of uprooted worshipers cross back north to celebrate mass. The main parts of the liturgy are read in Aramaic, Kassapis says.

Kormakiti's long isolation from the main currents of the Arab world helped to keep alive its exotic strain of Aramaic, which incorporates Greek, Turkish, French, and Italian words.

Hopes for Kormakiti's renaissance were stirred last April when the Turkish Cypriot authorities unexpectedly allowed limited access across the "green line" for the first time in nearly three decades. Now Maronites can visit for longer periods but are still not allowed to reside there.

Sensing more of a future for their ancestral village, some are renovating their old homes for weekend use. Their hopes are pinned on a comprehensive settlement plan for Cyprus, which was submitted last year by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary-General, but which has been rejected by the Turkish Cypriot leader, Rauf Denktash. Under the plan's terms, the Maronite villages in Turkish-held northern Cyprus would come under Greek Cypriot administration. According to some in the Maronite community, the provision was included after intervention by the Vatican.

Without a solution to the long-running Cyprus problem, the Maronite community - and its ancient language - in northern Cyprus could vanish, members say.

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