Iraq's Christians fight to save threatened ancient language

Iraq's shrunken and conflict-scarred Christian community is launching a new television channel as part of efforts to save their dying language, spoken for more than 2,000 years.

Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic, has traditionally been the language spoken by Christians in Iraq and neighboring Syria, mostly in homes but also in some schools and during church services.

However, Syriac-speaking communities in the two countries have declined over the years, owing to decades of conflict driving many to seek homes in safer countries. In Iraq, the Christian population is thought to have fallen by more than two-thirds in just over two decades.

"It's true that we speak Syriac at home, but unfortunately I feel that our language is disappearing slowly but surely," said Mariam Albert, a news presenter on the Syriac-language Al-Syriania television channel.

Iraq's government launched the channel in April to help keep the language alive. It has around 40 staff and offers a variety of programming, from cinema to art and history.

"It is important to have a television station that represents us," said Albert, a 35-year-old mother.

Many programs are presented in a dialect form of Syriac but Albert said the channel's news bulletins are broadcast only in classical Syriac, a form not widely understood by everyone.

The goal of Al-Syriania is "to preserve the Syriac language" through "entertainment", said station director Jack Anwia.

"Once upon a time, Syriac was a language widespread across the Middle East," he said, adding that Baghdad has a duty "to keep it from extinction."

The Syriac language has been "sidelined," according to Kawthar Askar, head of the Syriac language department at Salahaddin University in Arbil.

Continue reading on: