Preserving the Syriac identity, Maronite bishops meet with Tur Levnon Association

BKERKE, Lebanon – Several bishops of the Syriac Maronite diaspora, with the blessing of His Beatitude Mor Béchara Boutros al-Raï, met in Bkerké with Dr. Amine Bar-Julius Iskandar of the Syriac Maronite Union-Tur Levnon to be informed and discuss the preservation of the Syriac identity.

The clergy present were bishops from the Syriac Maronite diaspora Georges Saad Abi-Younes (Mexico), Elias Zaidan (Los Angeles), Juan Habib Chamieh (Argentina), Gregory Mansour (New York), Edgard Madi (Brazil), Maronite exarch of Colombia Fr Fadi Chebel and the bishop of Tripoli Soueif, of Antelias Abou Najem, and Mounir Khayrallah of Batroun.

Dr. Iskandar shared his experience in learning and teaching the Syriac language and presented some essential points which the Maronites should always keep in mind regarding the preservation of their Syriac identity. Dr. Iskandar narrated how he became interested in learning about his own identity while studying architecture in Versailles, France. When he was once asked about the Maronites, he realized his lack of knowledge on the subject. Who are the Maronites? He set out to study about his roots. Learning of the beauty and rich Syriac Maronite history, he started studying Lebanese architecture.

One of the aspects he discovered while studying the Gospel of Rabboula (586), was the recurring appearance in the illustrations of three arches – the symbol of the Holy Trinity – and the lily flower – symbol of grace of God. All this was prior to Arab culture and prior Islam, so it could not be influenced by Arab or Muslim art. It was the other way around; the Syriac world was the source.

In the meeting Dr. Iskandar explained that the Syriac language is like Hebrew, opposed to all virtuosity in the inscriptions. Calligraphic ornaments are not allowed because the inscription represents the Word, or “Melto” in Syriac. The architecture and iconography of Syriac spirituality shows a solemn simplicity, and not because the Syriac Maronites did not know how to make sophisticated works but because their intention was to remain simple. Simplicity is not only required in the symbols, but also in meaning. Like in an icon, each symbol must have a meaning and cannot be only just decorative. An example of this, he pointed out, is found in the illustration of the sun and the moon when they are used in art to indicate the concept of divinity and humanity of Christ.

Even in the most profane art of Mount Lebanon, one breathes Maronite spirituality. Indeed, many built their dwellings with the wise counsel of the village priest or the monk of the nearest monastery, precisely to make their house a house for God.

He also said that Syriac is not, strictly speaking, the language that our Lord Jesus Christ spoke because Syriac is Christianized Aramaic. In Syriac one finds many Greek words. The Syriac Church Fathers borrowed many Greek terms in the elaboration and expression of their Christian doctrine theology.

In an answer to a question by one of the present bishops why the emphasis on the Syriac language, Dr. Amine Iskandar said that to preserve the Syriac identity, language, and roots is to open ourselves to others and offer what we are to mutually enrich each other. He remembered his audience that the Maronites always prayed in Syriac and made reference to the fact that they will not forget to return to it in the liturgy; for example, he said, one of the requirements for printing a missal consisted, along with the ecclesiastical approval, that the original text in Syriac should have appeared next to the text in the vernacular language. He cited the synods of 1744, 1755, and 1756 that protected the Syriac language as explained in one his articles on the Syriac Identity in Lebanon.

In order to begin to deepen this Syriac identity, he recommended that all Maronites be invited to at least learn to pray the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Mary in Syriac. One of the bishops present commented that he will implement this in his diocese for all schools from elementary to university level.

At the end of the meeting with most of the Maronite hierarchs of the Diaspora, the consensus was reached to together promote identity and Syriac language with the support of the Tur Levnon Association.

Dr. Iskandar made an interesting observation at the end when he pointed to the fact that more than 90% of the Lebanese Maronites live in the diaspora and speak neither Lebanese nor Arabic. This creates a window of opportunity to teach the Syriac language.

For the article in Spanish see MARONITAS.org