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.

Jamal Saidi/Reuters/File
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.

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. 

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.

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.

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.”

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