Iraq moves to preserve Christian heritage, Syriac language

Iraqi Christians on a spiritual pilgrimage to the birthplace of biblical patriarch Abraham visit the ruins of Ur near Nasiriyah in southern Dhi Qar province, Nov. 22, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Essam Al-Sudani)
Over the past 11 years, the Christian population in Iraq has decreased by more than 75%. It started to decline gradually after 2003, following the overall rise in violence and attacks targeting Christians. Before 2003, there were around 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, and according to recent church figures, only 300,000 remain.

Perhaps this drastic difference pushed administrators in charge of  education to find ways to preserve Christianity’s cultural and religious heritage in Iraq. Christianity is a major  component of Iraqi society, and it would be incredibly negligent to  allow it to disappear, under any circumstances.

Emad Salem Jeju, director general of the Syriac Study Directorate, spoke  with Al-Monitor about the Ministry of Education’s decision  to include Syriac and Christian religious education in the  curricula of 152 public schools in the provinces of Baghdad, Ninevah and  Kirkuk. The goal is to preserve the Syriac language, the mother tongue of all  Christian denominations, so the schools were selected based  on these areas’ large Christian populations.

According to Jeju, the schools selected enroll a total of 20,500  students. In addition to teaching Syriac, they also offer Christian religious  education. Jeju said that a committee of the Council of Catholic Bishops of Iraq  has been working on developing a new curriculum for Christian religious  education that will be issued next year. The schools are  currently using the same curriculum as schools in the Iraqi Kurdistan  Region.

The initiative appears aimed at satisfying the Christian denominations in  Iraq and to illustrate that religious teaching is not limited to just one  sect. Iraq has 14 officially recognized Christian denominations with historical roots in the country.

The schools teaching Syriac and Christian religious studies are  divided into two sections. In one section, the entire curricula is taught in  Syriac, while in the other section only Syriac language courses and religious  studies are taught in Syriac. In the latter section, all other subjects,  approved by the Ministry of Education, are taught in Arabic.

On Aug. 16, 2011, the Iraqi parliament had declared the opening of the General Directorate of Syriac Culture and Art. It  represented the launch of several activities geared toward reviving the  Syriac language. Although parliament’s decision could be considered a bit  late, the Kurdistan Regional Government had already taken such a step  in the 1990s; many Christians viewed it as a real gain and  opportunity to further their civilization in the country.

Among those who praised the decision is Enlil Issac Yako, a teacher at the  Erdan Basic Syriac School in the province of Dahuk. Following the decision, he  wrote on the official website of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa): “This  decision represents a national gain, because the language is at the  basis of every nation, along with the land, people, religion, culture, customs  and traditions. This is an important step, because our people today are facing  the repercussions of the current phase, in an attempt to prove their existence  and national identity in the lands of their ancestors, as they are a genuine and  ancient component of the country’s civilization.”

Implementation of the decision faces a number of obstacles, however. Many  Christian families do not speak the Syriac language fluently, especially in the  city of Mosul, according to Athena Baba Younathan, assistant director of the  Alf-Farah Elementary School, which is affiliated with the Christian Orthodox  community in Iraq. Younathan told Al-Monitor that because  so many Syriac and Chaldean families do not speak the Syriac language, they  had been reluctant to have their children study in Syriac at school. The  students, however, have had no problems studying in the language, she added.

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