The Ones that Still Speak the Language of Jesus

February 28, 2016

“But Jesus was Middle Eastern!”

This is the call of protesters striving to acknowledge the Western world’s connection to the global refugee crisis – and the Arab world overall.

After all, here in the United States, our friends in the South know this Jesus persona all too well. And both liberals and conservatives have likely had contact with his name and story. Yet, today’s present discourse often causes us to align Middle East with Islam, and Islam to Terror. Though there are many clear problems with that linear approach to understanding the dynamics at play in the region, two components are rarely assessed together: Refugees and Christianity.

What is often forgotten in the conversation of today’s refugee crisis is that many of Jesus’ very first followers – and present day followers – also happen to be Middle Eastern – and many of those same followers are Christian refugees fleeing from terror.

Syriac Arameans are an ethno-religious group from the Middle East. They originate from the Biblical region of Aram, known today as Syria. Though they do not possess a country, their diaspora has led them to many regions throughout the Middle East, and now most recently, to Europe.

Talitha, a sweet and optimistic fifteen-year-old Aramean girl from Al Qamishli, Syria, had no idea the rest of the world found it to be so surprising that she, as a refugee fleeing from ISIS, comes from a Christian family.

“When we arrived in Switzerland, my classmates assumed I was Muslim, and found it strange that Arabic was not my first language,” Talitha noted.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular elements of the Syriac Aramean community is indeed the fact that they have preserved their use of the ancient Aramaic language, the same language Jesus of Nazareth spoke. The same language spoken in the award-winning film, the Passion of the Christ. It is not only recited in the Syriac Orthodox Christian Church’s liturgy, but also spoken regularly in the home. Syriac Arameans are not the only community speaking Neo-Aramaic, Assyrians and Chaldeans, additional native Christian groups from the Middle East, namely Iraq, also speak the language.

Talitha did not realize the massive disconnect that she would experience when fleeing to a new safe haven.

“I quickly realized the very narrow vision the rest of the world appears to have toward us. I have felt both suspicion and distrust. But most astonishingly, fear. How can they fear us, when fear itself is what brought us here?” said Talitha.

As countless refugees flee to Europe and elsewhere seeking safety, Christians in the Middle East, particularly Syriac Arameans, have struggled to have paperwork processed because they did not possess formal recognition as a people-group in the countries they are fleeing from. This causes asylum seekers to face many hurdles, and limits the rights and resources that are often available to Muslim refugees.

Besides Israel, which has a small population of about 200 Syriac Aramean families, most of the Middle Eastern countries hosting Syriac Arameans have refused to provide a structured recognition for the community.

Many European countries’ immigration policies tend to favor Muslim communities as the refugee influx continues. Not just because they are the majority, but because their identification and paperwork is more smoothly processed since registration often is reliant upon their organizational representation in their native countries. Because Syriac Arameans are not yet formally acknowledged in Syria or Iraq, the resources they receive are limited. If they cannot prove they were previously registered as minorities, they do not have full access to necessary resources.

Although the current humanitarian tragedy ISIS continues to execute has caused a gloom of hopelessness throughout the world, advocates hope that it may also spring forth as a light to expose the plight of the Syriac Aramean community – and the struggles of all Middle Eastern Christians undergoing persecution.

So, when the cry “Jesus was Middle Eastern!” is heard, the anticipation then is to personalize the connection between two seemingly different and disconnected groups: the West, and Middle Eastern refugees, through the linkage of faith, and through a character who advocated for peaceful unity as well, many generations ago.

By: Loureen Ayyoub