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In Syrian Villages, the Language of Jesus Lives

ICC Note

This story by New York Times gives clear picture of how Christians are dwindling in the Middle East . The rest of the Christian world should pray and take actions to spread the good news in the Middle East .

By Robert F. Worth

04/22/2008 Syria (The New York Times)-Elias Khoury can still remember the days when old people in this cliffside village spoke only Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Back then the village, linked to the capital, Damascus , only by a long and bumpy bus ride over the mountains, was almost entirely Christian, a vestige of an older and more diverse Middle East that existed before the arrival of Islam.

Now Mr. Khoury, 65, gray-haired and bedridden, admits ruefully that he has largely forgotten the language he spoke with his own mother.

“It’s disappearing,” he said in Arabic, sitting with his wife on a bed in the mud-and-straw house where he grew up. “A lot of the Aramaic vocabulary I don’t use any more, and I’ve lost it.”

But the island has grown smaller over the years, and some local people say they fear it will not last. Once a large population stretching across Syria , Turkey and Iraq , Aramaic-speaking Christians have slowly melted away, some fleeing westward, some converting to Islam.

In recent decades the process has accelerated, with large numbers of Iraqi Christians escaping the violence and chaos of their country.

Yona Sabar, a professor of Semitic languages at the University of California , Los Angeles , said that today, Malula and its neighboring villages, Jabadeen and Bakhaa, represent “the last Mohicans” of Western Aramaic, which was the language Jesus presumably spoke in Palestine two millennia ago.

John Francis, 20, said, “My father wrote a book about it, but I barely speak any.” (Western-sounding names are common among Christians in Syria and Lebanon .)

But even the town’s Christian identity is fading. Muslims have begun replacing the emigrating Christians, and now Malula — once entirely Christian — is almost half Muslim, residents say.

Malula’s linguistic heritage stirred some interest after the release of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” with its mix of Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew dialogue. Virtually everyone in town seems to have seen the film, but few said they understood it. That was not their fault: it included different dialects of Aramaic, and the actors’ pronunciation made it hard to understand anything, said Mr. Sabar, the Semitic languages professor.

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