by Brooke Conrad | Hillsdale College
Originally appeared here on January 19, 2017.
On Wednesday, the Israeli Knesset passed a bill allowing Aramaic Christians to register for free as their own ethnicity in Israel.
Previously, Aramaic Christians had to pay a cumbersome $400 to register in the Israeli state. But now, according to Shadi Khalloul, the founder of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Association, this bill not only makes it much easier for Aramaic Christians to register but also will help the state of Israel to recognize the Aramaic Christian community as separate from their Arabic Muslim neighbors.
Khalloul belongs to a group of about 10,000 Maronite Christians who live in Israel. The Maronite Church dates back to A.D. 350 and was set apart largely because its members continued to speak Aramaic, which many believe to be the language of Jesus.
In northern Israel, close to the Lebanese border, the ruins of Kfar Baram, an old Maronite Christian village, stand to tell the story of how the sect today is fighting to retain its culture. In 1953, amid danger on the Lebanese border, the new Israeli government told Christians in the village to evacuate their homes and move to Jish.
The Christians returned later and found the buildings were destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Khalloul said this was because it was difficult for the Israeli government to distinguish between the Aramaic Christians who used to live there and their Arabic Muslim neighbors, many of whom aim for Israel’s destruction. Khalloul worked for 10 years up until now to pass a bill that would establish Aramaic Christianity as a distinct ethnicity, and he hopes to continue strengthening Christian-Jewish relations.
“Your fathers are our fathers,” he said on behalf of his community. “We are proud to be sons of the same race … and we hope that God will save the Jews from persecution.”
In addition to preserving his people’s ethnicity, Khalloul is also helping to revive the language of the Maronite Church, Aramaic. One way his community in Jish does this is through Aramaic summer camps for children.
On their January trip to Israel, 42 students and two professors from Hillsdale visited Kfar Baram and recited the Lord’s Prayer together in Aramaic while standing inside the old stone Church of Maria. The language is close to Israel’s national language, Hebrew. According to Khalloul, the two languages enrich each other and share similar words. Khalloul said he wants to see a revival of Aramaic among Christians similar to that which occurred with Hebrew among the Jews over the past 100 years.
“If the Jews succeeded, we can succeed,” Khalloul said.
Hillsdale’s tour guide on the trip, Jeremy Collins, suggested two different possibilities for the language of Jesus: some claim that he spoke Hebrew, since many works and letters from Jesus’s time were written in Hebrew, and the language was possibly spoken up until the fifth century. Others, including the pope, suggest that he spoke Aramaic.
Several Hillsdale students said they enjoyed getting to meet Khalloul and hear about the work he is doing there.
“I think it’s really cool he’s reviving an old language,” sophomore Calvin Kinney said. “It’s also cool to see his persistence since his village has been destroyed.”
Christians make up only about 2 percent of the Israeli population, and there are only about 10,000 Maronite Christians currently living in Israel. While there is certainly danger for Christians in living in the Middle East, Khalloul said he is thankful to live in Israel.
“Christians in Israel feel safe and protected because of Israel’s strong military,” he said. “If this would be weakened, we would have problems. If Israel is strong, we as Christians are strong and safe as well.”
Sophomore Katarina Bradford said Khalloul’s situation demonstrates that Israel is an anomaly in the Middle East.
“I asked him what life is like as a Christian in Israel,” she said. “He said it is wonderful. It is the only place in the Middle East where he can have lunch with a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a homosexual, and an atheist, and have a peaceful meal … Christians are such a minority in the nation of Israel and you think they would be marginalized, but it’s the only place where you can live in the Middle East and thrive.”