ISIS: Destroying the Language of Jesus?

Aramaic is under threat as ISIS invades northern Iraq

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 15, 2014 2:10 PM CDT

(Newser) – Islamic militants may have an unexpected victim in northern Iraq: an ancient collection of dialects and languages that's been around for over 3,000 years, Foreign Policy reports. Called Aramaic, it was flourishing among Assyrian Christians in the Nineveh plain of Iraq until ISIS invaded earlier this month and forced about 200,000 people to flee. Now the refugees (and their language) are facing grim prospects: "The threat to the Christian Neo-Aramaic-speaking population of northern Iraq is very great," says a linguist. "Since each village has a different dialect, if the inhabitants of the villages are uprooted and thrown together in refugee camps or scattered in diaspora communities around the world, the dialects will inevitably die."

Aramaic was once a common language spoken from Egypt to India. It thrived in the Babylonian and First Persian Empires, resisted Alexander the Great's imposition of Greek in the fourth century BC, and was reportedly spoken by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew when he said during his crucifixion, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" ("My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?") Aramaic speakers later dispersed when Arabic spread in the seventh century CE, and they suffered a heavy blow during the reported Assyrian Genocide by Turkish nationalists during World War I (Armenians and Greeks weren't the Turks' only victims). Before ISIS invaded this month, "the best hope for Aramaic's survival was in northern Iraq," reports Foreign Policy. Now we may witness "the deliberate extinction of a language and culture, unfolding in real time." See a CBS News report on endangered Christians in Iraq, or John Kerry's concerns about Christian and Yazidi genocide.

Priest from Assyrian church Tomas Hanna Chamoun, center, and Leader of Awaking Council in southern Baghdad Moustafa al- Jibouri, second right, lead a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, on Oct 15, 2008.
Priest from Assyrian church Tomas Hanna Chamoun, center, and Leader of Awaking Council in southern Baghdad Moustafa al- Jibouri, second right, lead a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq, on Oct 15, 2008.   (AP Photo/Loay Hameed)
A painting depecting Jesus Christ hangs from a tree.
A painting depecting Jesus Christ hangs from a tree.   (AP Photo/Guillermo Arias)
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