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Saturday, 5 May, 2001, 06:31 GMT 07:31 UK
Syria's Christian legacy
Greek Catholic Syrian children await their confirmation ceremony in Damascus
Syria has a vibrant, minority Christian community
By Barbara Plett in Damascus

A woman prays in the dim light of the ancient stone chapel, her eyes raised to the gilded icons above an arched entrance to the inner sanctuary.

[The Pope's] visit to Syria will bring a different way of looking at things here, [it will show] that Syria is not a terrorist country, so the world will know Syria better

Father Tawfiq Eid, a Syrian priest
She is reciting the Lord's prayer in the same words that Jesus used.

Aramaic used to be the common language of the Middle East, but it almost died out as Arabic swept the region after the Arab invasions of the 7th Century.

It survives in Maalula, a small Christian village in the craggy hills north of Damascus.

Holy tongue

The ancient tongue is part of Syria's Christian heritage, something the faithful here are eager to show off during the visit of Pope John Paul II, the first ever by a head of the Catholic Church.

"The mountains may have helped to conserve this language because these villages have been isolated geographically," says a local priest, Father Tawfiq Eid.

Christian girl in Damascus
The Pope's visit should highlight Syria's religious tolerance
Whatever the case, Aramaic is not a museum piece, according to Miriam Michael. She chatters in the language with her children and grandchildren who have come by for lunch served on her large balcony.

Like many others here the house is painted blue and virtually hangs from the side of a sheer cliff.

The children learned Aramaic from Miriam by word of mouth, as it is not written down or taught in school.

"I am afraid we will lose this language, so I always speak it with the family, even when I telephone my son in Canada, because I do not want him to forget it," she says.

Miriam may not have to worry much longer. There are attempts now by German linguists to make Aramaic a written language; they use a Latin alphabet and transcribe the sounds phonetically.

Strong following

That would only reinforce a tradition rich with saints and rituals, one reason why Christian pilgrims crowd into the shrine of St Tekla in Maalula's hilltop convent.

Christian children in Damascus show a portrait of Pope John Paul II
John Paul II's visit is the first by a head of the Catholic Church
St Tekla is said to have been a follower of the Apostle Paul. He was a Jew who converted to Christianity in Damascus and became the church's first missionary.

The Pope has designed his tour to re-trace Paul's footsteps.

"Syria is the mother of Christianity, so it is very important for people to know that there are nowadays Christians who live here and that they have this faith," says Vera, who has come from Aleppo to drink holy water at the shrine.

It is true that Christianity may not be the first thought that comes to mind when Syria is mentioned.

The faith is vibrant here, but the community is a minority and getting smaller because of emigration.

However, Christians do live in harmony with their Muslim neighbours, despite Syria's reputation for political oppression.

People here are hoping the Pope's visit will highlight the religious tolerance in this country.

"Of course the Pope is a man of peace," says Father Tawfiq. "He changed a lot of things in the past, and his visit to Syria will bring a different way of looking at things here, [it will show] that Syria is not a terrorist country, so the world will know Syria better."

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04 May 01 | Europe
Pope to visit Syria
29 Mar 01 | World
Pope reaches out to Islam
04 May 01 | Europe
In pictures: Pope on tour
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