In a small church in Baghdad, Iraq, a couple dozen people have gathered for prayers on a sunny Sunday morning.
They stand in pews facing a crimson-colored curtain and a podium with a gold Syriac cross on it. The distinctive cross has a total of 12 circles at its points to represent the 12 disciples of Jesus.
The congregants are reciting their prayers in an ancient language called Syriac. Today, it’s spoken mostly by Christians in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The language traces its roots to Aramaic, which was the script of the original Christian Bible, and spoken by Jesus Christ. And it’s part of the family of Semitic languages in the Middle East region.
The Syriac language is disappearing, with fewer and fewer people speaking it. The official languages of Iraq are Arabic and Kurdish.
But now, after campaigning by some groups, a newly launched television channel, Al-Syriania, with funding from the Iraqi government, is hoping to change that. The community says it’s a good move toward preserving Syriac and in helping people stay connected with their language and culture.
The channel has about 40 staff members and can be viewed in Iraq and around the world through satellite networks, such as NileSat and ArabSat.
It’s a sister station of Al-Iraqiya, an Arabic television network that was set up in the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, which also broadcasts in Kurdish and Turkmen.
The news bulletins for the new channel are read in classical Syriac, but many of the other programs — which include cinema, art, history, cultural events and music — are presented in a dialect of the language.
“We have daily segments, like news and morning shows, and also, documentary programs about the history of the church and historical sites,” said Jack Anwia, the station director.
“We also play classical Syriac songs and music, the top-100 movies, and we have correspondents reporting from the field.”
A 2,000-year-old language
The earliest written records of the use of Syriac date back to the first or second century B.C. The use of the language reached its peak between the fifth and seventh centuries. With the rise of Muslim conquests, more people in the region began to speak Arabic, leading to the eventual decline of the use of Syriac.
It did, however, remain prevalent in religious texts until modern times.
At the time when President George W. Bush announced the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country was home to about 1.5 million Christians. Since then, that number has dropped to about 400,000.
The war caused many of them to flee to other safer countries. But much of the decline also followed the onslaught of ISIS in 2014, which targeted Christians and other minorities.
Many of the families settled down in other countries around the world, and younger generations have tried to adopt the languages of their host countries to assimilate better, losing touch with Syriac unless it’s spoken at home.
“They stay [in their new countries] because their sons and daughters are born there,” said Father Qasha Shamoun, a priest at the Ancient Church of the East in Baghdad.
“They learn the culture of [those] countries, so it’s too difficult for them to come back to Iraq.”
Shamoun said the security situation has improved in Iraq over the past several years, but the Christian community is so small that it’s hard to bring people together for programs.
“I have one family, if [they want] to get to the church, they have to drive for a couple of hours,” he said.
He added that Al-Syriania has been good for providing Syriac programming and that people in his community have told him they like watching it.
Hundreds of Syriac books and manuscripts have still survived decades of war and migration.
In fact, right before ISIS fighters captured large parts of northern Iraq in 2014, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Najeeb Michaeel, rescued a collection of centuries-old Syriac manuscripts as he fled.
Now, many of them are preserved at the Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, which is supported by UNESCO, USAID and the Catholic Dominican Order.
Back at the news station, Anwia said that it’s important not to lose Syriac.
“It is one of the oldest languages of Iraq,” he said. “And it needs to be protected from extinction.”
By Sara Hassan