A growing separation from the Arab world in hostile circumstances.
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When Syria completed its conquest of Lebanon in 1990, it made sure to incorporate Arabism into the Ta’if Agreement which ended the Lebanese Civil War. “Lebanon is Arab in belonging and identity… Lebanon, with its Arab identity, is tied to all the Arab countries by true fraternal relations,” read the agreement. Lebanon’s imposed Arabism continued during the early stages of what would become known as the 2005 Cedar Revolution. In one extreme case, those pushing for separate identity (in addition to physically threatening Palestinians) were detained for voicing anti-Arabist sentiments.
Yet, following the 2005 Syrian pullout from Lebanon, quests for separate identity among Christians were reinvigorated. Sami Gemayel, a Member of Parliament and leader in the Kataeb Party, went so far as to say, “As a Lebanese citizen my identity is Maronite, Syriac [meaning Aramean], Christian, and Lebanese.”
Even in Syria there has been a marked shift. The Assad regime first attempted to subsume non-Arab Christian identities under Arabism and then met with representatives from leading organizations which represented non-Arab Christian ethnic interests.
Christian identity battles haven’t simply been initiated as a response to Arabism, but also directed inwardly toward other Christians who’ve embraced other non-Arab identities. The battle over identity has become a common element of Internet discussion between those who ascribe to different Middle Eastern Christian ethnicities. Usually, one group will attempt to impose its name over the others. While these arguments usually begin as a quest for greater Christian unity, they often devolve into more fractious infighting.
According to David Dag, “The Assyrianists use polemics based on [false] theories against those of us who opt for the true Syriac-Aramean identity of our people.” For an Assyrian activist who wished to be called “Sargon” (after the Assyrian king Sargon II who defeated an Aramean army in 720 B.C.), “The Chaldeans manufactured an identity! It’s fake. It’s nothing but ideas to split Christians. Chaldeanism is as fake as being an ‘Aramean.’ The Christians of the East [meaning the Middle East] are Assyrian.”
In Sweden, home to one of the largest expatriate populations of Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Syriacs, disagreements over identity have spilled over into verbal arguments and team rivalries on the soccer pitch. In 1977 Arameanists created the Syrianska Football Club in part, as a response to the 1974 creation by Assyrianists of the Assyriska Föreningen soccer team.
Despite the differences between the identities, one element that both unites and is seen as fundamental is the push to revive the Aramaic language — or in the contemporary case, versions of neo-Aramaic.
In the early 1990s, Aramaic was taught in some Iraqi churches and after the fall of Saddam Hussein it became more commonly taught in schools catering to Christian students. As Juliana Taimoorazy of Iraqi Christian Relief Council revealed, “The truth is, if the Assyrian nation is to be kept from extinction, it is through our next generation who will live in Iraq, keeping our beloved traditions, and our sacred Aramaic language.”
On the border with Lebanon, the Israeli Maronite village of Jish has been undergoing a renewed sense of identity with Aramaic language classes. “Reviving the Aramean Syriac language in Jish is part of a whole Aramaic cause to revive our language and identity,” says Amir Khalloul, a teacher of Aramaic and a leader in the effort to revitalize the language and culture.
When asked if there was any resistance to the Aramaic language and identity program, Khalloul answered, “We encountered problems from ‘Arabized’ Christians. They want to show us and our project as threatening to the Arab identity. They think that doing so will let them gain chairs, positions, and advantages from their Arab political parties or surrounding community.” He added, “Whether they are aware or unaware of this fact, it is a language and culture for all Levantine Christians, without any exemptions.”
For the project in Jish, support came from what would appear to be an unusual source. “We have Arab-Muslim friends that support our cause and are helping us to achieve our goals,” Khalloul recounted. He wished to thank Mrs. Khatib, “She’s the headmaster of the school in Jish. Mrs. Khatib is an intellectual Arab-Muslim lady who supported us significantly to teach our Aramaic language in the school.”
In addition to Aramaic language classes, there has been an explosion of media outlets servicing Syriac Christians. In 2004 Zowaa established Ashur TV. 2005 saw the creation of Ishtar TV by the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council. From late 2005 to early 2006, Swedish-based Arameanists established the increasingly popular Suryoyo Sat. In 2011, Assyria TV was also started.
Regardless of the successes made by the Christian groups, there is still significant communal pain, especially due to regional strife and being targeted. Around half of Iraq’s Christians, mostly represented by the Assyrian, Chaldean, and Syriac Christian sects, have been turned into refugees. Churches and Christian businesses have also been attacked. Due to political splits, Maronite power in Lebanon has ebbed in recent years. Syrian Christians fear what may happen to their community as the civil war in that country continues to get worse.
Johny Messo, president of the World Council of Arameans (formerly known as the Syriac Universal Alliance), listed some requests he would like addressed by Middle Eastern states with Aramean populations:
First of all, recognition of the Aramean people as the indigenous people of these countries — unlike Kurds for example who have stolen much of our traditional lands and annexed them to their irredentist ideology of a larger Kurdistan. Secondly, equality — we ask for a fair treatment based on constitutions which ensure our rights and duties as for all citizens and groups. Thirdly, justice for the past inflictions of maltreatment of our people — we have been persecuted, discriminated against, killed, pushed away, uprooted and, while living in the diaspora, we are now suffering again from the expropriation of our ancestral land as well as other properties that legally and historically belong to the Aramean (Syriac) people.
While there have been many positive developments for these communities, the going will be tough. With ideological infighting, a shrinking population in their homelands, and attacks against their communities, these Christian groups may find their revival a much harder prospect than what many hope for. Nevertheless, they will continue their struggle. For one Chaldean academic, “It’s what happens in the diaspora — that’s what matters. We can rebuild and return, but it will all take lots of time.”
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