Category Archives: Iraq

Speaking the Language of Jesus

I sometimes speak the language of Jesus when I fill my car with gasoline.

That’s because the friendly young couple who run one of my local gas stations are from northern Iraq, and their language – modern Aramaic – is apparently derived from the language that Jesus spoke. They have been teaching me a few words.

Actually, I don’t know if Jesus really did say shlama ‘lokhun (hello) or baseema (thank you). There seem to be many variants of the language, and of course modern dialects presumably differ from the classical language, just as do modern and classical Greek, and modern Italian and Latin.

But I do know that Jesus said Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? (Matthew 27:46), and my friends at the gas station say that’s pretty close to how they would say it.

Tragically, we now witness the rise of Islamic State, which has launched a campaign of genocide against the Christians of northern Iraq and southwest Syria, where the language is also spoken. Numerous residents have fled as ISIS gains more territory. The future of Aramaic as a living language is in doubt.

But now comes a rare piece of Mideast good news. A revival in Aramaic is occurring in, of all places, Israel.

Gush Halav – known in Arabic as Jish – is a small town in the Galilee Valley, in northern Israel. More than half the population are Maronite Christians, who still use Aramaic in their church liturgy, and even often speak it.

Since 2011, under the auspices of the Israeli Ministry of Education, Aramaic has been taught in the town’s schools. And last year the Israeli government recognized the country’s 20,000 Aramaic people as a distinct nationality.

So, as Christians increasingly flee from many of their traditional lands in the face of murder or slavery, it is heartening to see a tiny part of the region where they are able to live in peace, and where their traditions are respected and encouraged.

Indeed, Christians are now under threat of subjugation throughout much of the Mideast, with Israel as a shining exception. Christianity there is actually thriving and growing. For that praise God.

Christianity Doomed in Iraq, Say Experts

Is it now time for Christians to accept defeat in the face of the ISIS genocidal onslaught in Iraq, and admit that our faith has no viable future – in the short term, at least – in that country? Certainly – and sadly – that is the message that is increasingly being heard from many experts.

Nina Shea is an international human rights lawyer and director of the US-based Center for Religious Freedom. She has an impressive record of fighting on behalf of Mideast Christians.

But now she is bluntly calling for, in her words, “a new strategy.”

And what exactly is this new strategy?

In an article last week at National Review Online she writes: “The only achievable strategy under the current circumstances is to prepare for an orderly resettlement of these Christians (and Yazidis) in the West.”

Then she adds: “It is a bitter development for the Church and for them, being discarded after 2,000 years of history, through no fault of their own. But it is the most humane of the alternatives. Otherwise they face indigence and exile or, worse, slaughter at the hands of jihadists.”

Also last week, on the Defense One website, comes an article from Barry Posen, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Security Studies Program. Its title: “The Iraqi Army No Longer Exists.”

In other words, there is no remaining force that, realistically, is going to halt ISIS as it continues its drive to subjugate the region’s Christians. Certainly, as Shea notes, the US does not appear to have the will to do this.

Taking a similar theme, Stephen Walt, an international relations professor at Harvard University, concedes that ISIS increasingly looks like becoming a real and viable state. His article on the Foreign Affairs website has the telling sub-title: “Live with it.”

All this simply confirms what historian Walter Russell Mead told a Hudson Institute conference last month. Christians and other minorities in the region must either “fort up or flee.” Yet the time to “fort up” has long passed.

Christians might comfort ourselves – as I try to do – with thoughts of how our faith is blooming in many other parts of the world. But let us not delude ourselves. This is a tragedy of monumental proportions.

A New Feeling of Peace and Joy Amidst the Bloodshed

We do not hear much good news for Christians from Iraq nowadays, so I was encouraged to hear about a new school there that, against all odds, is achieving great success in turning angry and confused young refugee kids into enthusiastic students.

It is run by Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Christian priest, and I was able to set up a Skype connection to chat with him about his activities.

In fact, Father Bazi has previously achieved a degree of renown. He was once kidnapped by Islamists. They used a hammer to break his teeth, his knees and his back. The torment only ended when his church paid a ransom to win his release. But he was forced to spend a year in bed, recovering from his injuries.

Douglas BaziHe has also been in churches that have been bombed, and he has seen members of his congregation murdered. He has been urged to leave the country, for his own protection, but he refuses.

He is now priest at Mar Elias church in a secure part of Iraq, in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, which is the capital of Kurdistan. Though just 80 kilometres from ISIS-controlled Mosul, the region is well protected and ISIS is not deemed a threat.

His church has a large, sprawling garden, and Christians fleeing the genocide of ISIS have found sanctuary there, living in 120 caravans.

It is among the caravans that he has launched his new school, staffed by volunteers and aimed at giving education – and hope – to some 200 youngsters, and to their parents as well.

Several caravans are classrooms. One is a computer lab. There is also a library. He wanted to take the children to the cinema, but it was expensive. So he was able to acquire a large television set, and another of the caravans is now a cinema.

“I want to give the children a future,” he said. “I want them to be creative. We must not transfer our hatreds to them.”

His programs seem to be working. Youngsters and adults arrived angry and aggressive, and traumatized from their experiences. With little to occupy them in their new environment they then became restless and depressed.

Now, thanks to the school and an extensive program that incorporates sports and drama classes, as well as more traditional subjects, he is witnessing enormous changes. The students have become happy, enthusiastic learners. Their parents have found a sense of community. A feeling of peace and joy embraces the caravans. Some of the families have refused to leave when given the chance to be resettled in apartments.

The students learn English, among other subjects, and Father Bazi has a request.

“I need books,” he told me. “Especially picture books for the younger children, but also books suitable for older children and adults.” Rather than novels he would prefer collections of short stories, as well as non-fiction titles with lots of illustrations.

If you feel you have suitable books that you could donate please email Father Douglas at douglasbazi@gmail.com.