I didn’t know it was a language. The taxi driver asked us, “Do you speak Christian.”
I don’t. Though I am a Christian, I try to avoid some of the jargon that has sprung up around the faith. In North America it is all too easy to live in a Christian sub-culture that bears absolutely no relation to the real world. It’s a safe place to be, but at times it can be a little bland (okay, a lot bland). So I try not to go there – especially since I think Jesus would be appalled at the idea of isolating yourself from those around you.
But that isn’t what our cab driver meant.
He wanted to know if we spoke Syriac, an ancient language of the Chaldean people. I don’t know much about it, other than that parts of the Old Testament book of Daniel are in Syriac in the original text. (I am not enough of a scholar to know why that is, nor have I tried to find out.)
Somewhere though in the past 2,000 years the language has become associated with Christians, so much so that Syriac is commonly referred to as Christian by the locals in northern Iraq. It is spoken by the Chaldean population who have been Christians as long as there has been a church. Arabs and Muslims don’t speak the language.
My cab driver’s question is a reminder that Islam is a relatively new religion in the Middle East. Our news media, focused on the present, forgets that there is a long Christian history in an area now dominated by Muslims. We hear stories of ISIS beheading Christians and persecuting minorities, but Christians were the majority once. A sizable Christian population remains in Iraq, in Jordan, in Egypt, in Turkey, in Iran and elsewhere. Christians may be persecuted, the church may seem besieged, but the final story has yet to be told.
Tradition is important, especially ones held faithfully for centuries, even millennia. It is probable that Sunday in a Chaldean church bears little resemblance to the Baptist church of my childhood. Nor should it – different cultures express the Christian faith in different ways. What unites is the core beliefs.
I wonder how many decision makers in the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria truly understand what it means to have a Chaldean minority in those countries. It strikes me that labeling the language as Christian changes the discussion, takes us places western leaders are reluctant to go.
That’s because the conflict in Iraq and Syria is much more than a political struggle. It is a religious war. And that really makes the post-Christian west uncomfortable because anything to do with religion makes us uncomfortable. If the different Islamic factions have one thing in common it is a desire to get rid of Christians, but that gets little publicity. There’s a reason some Iraqi towns have become a haven for Christians, with armed soldiers patrolling to ensure Muslims don’t come into town.
Those who “speak Christian” are a remnant, a beleaguered minority. Not everyone has the opportunity to flee, to become one of the horde of refugees battering down the doors of Europe. Some have to stay behind.
Do we have any responsibility to them?