Faded-green plants grow alongside dusty roads in the Aramaic-Maronite village of Jish. Pink and red potted flowers decorate the doorsteps of most homes, and the intensity of the midday sun enhances their color. It’s been several months since I returned from a trip I took to Israel with an organization called Passages.
During the trip, my group visited this particular village in the Galilee region to meet with a community of Arameans, an ancient people with a distinct culture, who have been severely persecuted throughout Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria for more than 1,400 years. Most are unaware of this people and their plight.
After hearing Shadi Khalloul, a Philos fellow and chairman of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association (ICAA), speak at the Syriac Maronite Church of Antioch about the movement to revitalize the Aramaic language and culture, our group’s bus followed Khalloul in his car to a house in the middle of town, where rows of covered folding tables awaited us on the patio.
Each setting had a beautiful and precise arrangement of plastic cutlery and dishes, and the long tables had several clear pitchers of water placed neatly in the center. As soon as we took our seats, a woman named Niveen and several young people from the community began serving us an abundance of authentic Aramean food — tea, lentils, vegetables, bread with fresh hummus, beef, and an assortment of desserts — all seasoned and cooked to perfection.
As I was about to leave, I talked with one of the young servers, Karees. Niveen, the chef and owner of the home, was her aunt. I watched Karees interact with her younger brother, translating what he said for me so I could understand him. I was impressed with her English. Karees later shared with me that she fluently speaks five languages, among which are Arabic, Hebrew, and even Chinese.
I left this village with the weighty task of sorting through a mixture of emotions and deciding how I would respond to what I had experienced. I marveled at the love, hospitality, and joy of these people I had never even heard of. I was challenged by their resilience. I also realized it was time for me to learn a second language.
Ultimately, I knew that I couldn’t forget what I’d experienced, and the only way for me to not forget was to find a way to give back. So when I arrived home, I scheduled a time to speak with Khalloul for a clearer understanding of the Aramean people, beginning with who they are.
Who Are Aramean Christians?
The Arameans identify as an indigenous Christian minority in Israel and the Middle East. Their heritage predates the founding of the Jewish nation. Many biblical characters who constitute the core of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity are referenced in scripture as Aramean (some Bible translations use the word “Syrian”).
The most notable biblical reference to this fact is in Deuteronomy 26:5, where God tells the Israelites to “declare before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation.’” This particular scripture is referring to Abraham, the father of the three aforementioned religions.
Since that time, the Aramean people have lived alongside other Middle-Eastern peoples, speaking their own language of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. This language is actually still spoken today by a small Aramean community that lives mostly in Israel and makes up a significant part of the 2-percent Christian population in the Holy Land.
When the first-century Christian church began to influence a host of nations and people groups throughout the Fertile Crescent, the ancient Aramean-Christian community thrived spiritually and culturally. But in AD 600, Islamic forces invaded the Aramean territories, forcing them to assimilate into Arab culture. Under intense persecution, many lost the ardor of their faith and the basic distinguishing elements of their culture and heritage, such as the Aramaic language. However, a small group of Arameans escaped to live in the Galilee region of Israel and in the foothills of modern-day Lebanon, a country that shares borders with Israel and Syria. There, they preserved their heritage, language, and faith.
While most Arameans today enjoy the civil liberties Israel’s democracy provides, and while their relationship with the Jews is strengthening, they are still persecuted to an extent by nearby Muslims. The persecution is even more severe in other non-democratic Middle-Eastern countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
Many of these Arameans in the Middle East, along with their families, are at higher risk for slaughter, rape, hijacking, and more, simply because of their ancestry. Governments frequently confiscate their churches and lands. They lack basic human rights and the freedom to teach their Aramaic heritage and language to their children. They have no freedom of speech or political representation.
Islamic Oppression Through the Centuries
Christians of the Middle East have suffered treatment like this for nearly 1,400 years. The Pact of Umar, reportedly signed by the caliph Umar I after his invasion of Jerusalem in the seventh century, sanctioned such cruel treatment of early Christians and other non-Muslims. Khalloul claims Sharia law, which still considers Christians and Jews as infidels, is based on this pact.
“The spirit of these laws still exists,” Khalloul wrote in an article on January 2. “They continue to be followed in all Islamic and Arab countries and in all current and future state constitutions of the Palestinian Authority. The Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and any terror organization that delegitimizes non-Muslims’ right to exist independently in the region also follow the Pact of Umar. Some of those laws are the most racist in human history and have led to genocide, annihilation and suffering for Eastern Christians and Arameans.”
The reality is, Islamic extremism isn’t just an issue in our generation. It’s an issue peoples of the Middle East have dealt with for more than a millennia, in addition to others’ destructive displays of power and aggression throughout history. Islamic forces have by no means been the only oppressive power in the Middle East, but they have been arguably the most consistent over time in their ideology of violence. The Aramean Christians have been suffering silently for more than 1,400 years under Islamic oppression.
We Want to Be Recognized As a Distinct People
After centuries of living in obscurity because of persecution, Arameans are now joining together to revitalize their language and culture and re-integrate into society as a distinct and free group of people. The Arameans want to be recognized as a distinct ethnicity with their own cultural traditions, religion, and language, rather than blending into the Arab culture in which they’ve lived due to forced assimilation that began centuries ago. This desire has warranted the need for historical evidence that the Arameans are in fact their own ethnicity.
Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a senior lecturer in the department of Arabic at Bar-Ilan University who served in Israeli Defense Force military intelligence for 25 years, wrote for Israel National News claiming that the Aramean people actually belong to their own ethnic heritage. The article summarizes Dr. Edmond Mayer’s research on Aramaic Maronites and their ethnic background that was conducted in 1942.
“He [Mayer] clearly stated that [Lebanese Maronites] were descendants of Syriac-Aramean peoples who lived in the area during the seventh century Muslim conquest,” Kedar said. “There is no reason not to recognize the existence of these Aramean groups, which have unique linguistic and religious definition as well as their own folklore.”
An Inspiration Strikes Khalloul
Khalloul, who was born and raised in this Aramean community, studied international business and finance at the University of Las Vegas. One day in a literature class, his professor referred to Aramaic as a dead language. Khalloul raised his hand and noted that he and his community still spoke the language. He captured the attention of not only the professor but also his classmates. That day he was asked to prepare and give a presentation.
Khalloul later stood in front of the class and described his Aramean community, the various groups within it, and the history of their culture and language, in addition to speaking the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic. His classmates expressed fascination and a desire to help. They wanted to know more. In that moment, Khalloul realized it was no longer necessary for Arameans to live in obscurity with their language dormant. He saw in the United States a people who would not only recognize the individuality and importance of the Aramean culture and language, but advocate for their civil rights and religious liberties.
Realizing the willingness and capabilities of American college students led to Khalloul’s current strategy for his people’s desire. Until now, the ICAA has focused mainly on local outreach — hosting workshops where students learn about the Aramean heritage, visit local Aramean Maronite churches, and view ancient holy documents and books written in Aramaic, in addition to learning various Aramaic prayers spoken by Jesus.
But now, the focus has expanded to an international level, where these kinds of activities will be offered on college campuses in the form of student-led organizations. The goal of these organizations is to:
- Increase awareness of the Aramean Christian cause and their suffering under persecution in the Middle East
- Educate American students about other Christian communities and offer opportunities for interaction and engagement
- Familiarize American Christians with Jesus’ language
- Advocate for civil rights and religious liberties for persecuted Christians in the Middle East by developing Jewish-Christian relationships and working with the Israeli government to create positive change
- Fund activities that advance these goals and benefit Christians both in the Aramean community and in the United States.
Khalloul is looking for student leaders at universities and colleges throughout the United States who want to spread the word about this widely unknown Christian culture and protect persecuted minorities in the Middle East. Khalloul and many other Arameans want to partner with Americans who share their belief that it’s possible to enjoy the benefits of civil rights and religious liberty without fleeing the land they’ve treasured for centuries.
“I don’t want to empty the birthplace of Christianity of Christians. I want you to help us stay in our land,” Khalloul said on behalf of the Aramean people to anyone who wants to participate. He believes the best way to be effective is by allowing love to drive our actions: “It’s not easy in the Middle East. You have to work to get things done, [but] Jesus didn’t teach us weak religion, my friend. He taught us a powerful way — to love one another.”
A Plea to the World for Recognition
Khalloul, who has worked with the Israeli government and in their military as a lieutenant in a paratrooper division, said his country relies heavily on its alliance with the United States since Israelis are some of the only people in the region who share the United States’ democratic values.
On November 26, 2014, Khalloul presented a statement at the United Nations Office in Geneva. In it, he asked the United Nations and its member states to recognize the violence and crimes committed against the Arameans over the past 100 years, to recognize and take action against ongoing crimes, and to consider the Aramean people a distinct ethnicity and culture.
“My own democratic country of Israel recently recognized the Arameans as an ethnic minority,” Khalloul said in the Nov. 26 statement. “This has enabled me and my children to correct our identity cards and to register ourselves as ‘Aramean Christians,’ because until recently we were incorrectly identified as ‘Arab Christians.’ “Not only is this historic decision by Israel and the Jewish people in accord with international law, we are also delighted that finally a state has heard our plea.”
Before my recent trip to Israel, I’d never traveled internationally. But as I looked out the bus window at the wide-open Galilean countryside, covered with tall brown grass and scattered wildflowers that looked like purple cotton balls, I felt like I was home.Without being able to fully understand the deep ties the Arameans have to their ancestral homeland, I believe I glimpsed what it means to be home. Without being able to fully understand the plight of persecuted peoples throughout the Middle East, including the Arameans, I believe I had a glimpse of what it means to be free.
Home. Freedom. These are concepts, or causes, that deeply touch the hearts of all human beings — causes that transcend ethnicity, religion, and citizenship. These are causes that prompt us to not just speak about love but to do something with it.
To learn more about Aramaic Christians’ efforts or to attend a conference, contact [email protected].