Regime change in Syria could mean the extinction of Jesus Christ’s language

Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen… and now Syria. The Ba’athist regime could be the next Arab government in trouble, although they won’t go without a fight. President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces have killed at least six protesters, maybe as many as 15, in the southern town of Daraa.

There’s no doubt about it – Syria is a very repressive regime, with a poor human rights record and a long history of sponsoring terrorism abroad. Damascus, outside the beautiful old town, looks like an authoritarian dictatorship, all totalitarian roundabouts and statues of swords. Pictures of Assad adorn every government building, restaurant and shop, and along the motorways – all standard fare for socialist dictatorships, except he bears a striking resemblance to the actor Tim McInnerny, best known to fans of Blackadder as Lord Percy and Captain Darling. This gives the personality cult a surreal quality, especially as he so often sports military fatigue.

Assad junior took over in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez, who seized power in 1970, and the Ba’athist state has been under “emergency rule” for even longer.

But whatever our sympathy for reformers, should we be so eager for regime change? Perhaps we should be sceptical. Because if the Assad family go, there’s a fair chance that the language spoken by Jesus Christ will go too. Syria is a predominantly Sunni Muslim country but it also has significant Shia and Christian minorities. The Assads themselves are Alawites, a Shia sect of Islam dismissed by hardline Sunnis as “little Christians”, who celebrate Easter and Christmas and use bread and wine in their religious services. Whatever else they’ve done, the Assads have managed to keep the country, a mix of Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawite and Christian, free of conflict. After what happened in Iraq, especially to that country’s poor Christian minority, do we dare risk the same thing in Syria? I’m not even sure the Israelis, the Assads’ arch-enemies, want that.

Syria has an awesome Christian heritage. Damascus itself has a beautiful Christian quarter with a relaxed, slightly Gallic atmosphere, and such treasures as the house of Ananias and an Orthodox cathedral on Straight Street, where St Paul had his conversion.

And about 40 miles north and 5,000 feet up there’s a town called Maaloula, nestling on a narrow stretch of hillside road and accessible only through one road (which still has a gate), where Aramaic is still spoken as the main language, which Lonely Planet compared to finding a Latin-speaking town in the Umbrian hills. There one can visit a fourth-century Orthodox convent of St Sergius and Bacchus, and hear the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic (when I went it was full of Iranian Shia women in chadors, as Shia Muslims revere the shrine). It’s an incredible scene.

Incidentally I owe my existence to Syria. My grandfather was a seminarian in Beirut in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire until a visit to Damascus, where being around so many beautiful women made him realise he could not be a priest. Old Damascus has not changed that much in the century since, and the women are still beautiful – it would be a tragedy if they were to be imprisoned behind the veil and to undergo the same ordeal as their sisters in Iraq. It would also be a tragedy if Syria’s Christians underwent the same ordeal, an ordeal that would certainly mean the end of Aramaic as a spoken language.

This article was published at Telegraph Blogs

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