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Christians in the Muslim World

From Granada to India by way of California

The Christian East is also an Indian priest from the state of Kerala who, accompanied by a Lebanese researcher transplanted in California, chants the Syriac paraphrase of Our Father composed by Saint Ephrem the Syrian in the 4th century. Such a scene is a snapshot of a convivial moment experienced at the 10th Symposium Syriacum - 8th Conference on Arab Christian Studies organised by the International Center for the Study of the Christian Orient or ICSCO

 

in Granada (Spain) from 22 to 27 September, a young academic institution founded by H.E. Francisco Javier Martínez, archbishop of Granada.

 

 

In order to understand what India has to do with Ephrem, bishop of Nisibis (modern-day Nusaybin in south-eastern Turkey), we must go back to the Syriac civilisation which blossomed in the Middle East starting in the 2nd century A.D.

 

 

Syriac is a Semitic language that belongs to the Aramaic family. In late Antiquity it became the medium by which Christianity spread across the Middle East up to the borders of China (where it left some traces found on some inscriptions rediscovered by the Jesuits in the 17th century) and to India.

 

 

Despite the gradual Arabisation of the Near East after the Muslim conquest, Syriac-speaking communities have survived till today in Iraq and eastern Syria. Until a few decades ago a sizable minority lived in eastern Turkey around the monasteries of Tur Abdin (i.e. the 'mountain of the servants [of God]'). Although their identity is still strong, most of the latter have now left and live in the Diaspora. Some of the initiatives designed to preserve the Syriac cultural heritage were presented at the symposium and are evidence of this strength.     

 

 

Still among Syriacs like among other Middle Eastern religious minorities, Arabic has become the dominant language. Hence the conference had a second surprise in store at least for the general public, namely the sizable Christian (and until the recent past Jewish) literature in the language of the Qur'an.

 

 

In the beginning it was a matter of translating for communities gradually undergoing a language shift and increasingly unable to read the original texts of their tradition, but as early as the 9th century original works began to be published. The second part of the Granada conference in fact focused on this rich, albeit too often underrated Arab-Christian literature with its cornucopia of theological and philosophical contributions of great interest.

 

 

As the title of the meeting seemed to suggest this literature about borderlands or even about lands "beyond borders" saw a great number of researchers bear witness to the growing interest in historical experiences which certainly have much to say nowadays.

 

 

For more on the subject Italian readers can read Patrimonio Arabo-Cristiano

 

(Arab-Christian Heritage) by the Gruppo di Ricerca Arabo Cristiano (Arab Christian Research Group or GRAC) which offers nine books with original texts and translations.

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