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Christians in the Muslim World

TWO HUNDRED SCHOLARS IN LEBANON FOR THE SYRIAC SYMPOSIUM AND THE CONGRESS OF ARAB-CHRISTIAN STUDIES

Notre Dame du Puits 20-26 September 2004

 

In September of 1972, the Oriental Pontifical Institute of Rome launched the first Symposium Syriacum. It was then decided to meet together every four years in a different city. In 1976 in Chantilly, the addition of a congress of Arab-Christian studies to the syriac symposium was proposed. To this end, the Arab-Christian Bulletin was created in 1976. Beginning in 1980 (Goslar), the two congresses were organised together: 1984 (Groningen), 1988 (Louvain), 1992 (Cambridge), 1996 (Uppsala-Lund), 2000 (Sidney), and 2004 (Lebanon).

 

The meeting in Lebanon took place last September, and it was the largest and most articulated congress of the series: more than 200 scholars from 25 different countries participated and the total number of contributions was 160. The double congress was organised for the 20th 26th September by CEDRAC (Arab-Christian Centre for Documentation and Research) from the University of Saint Joseph and by the USEK (University Saint-Esprit of Kaslik) in Notre Dame du Puits. Two inaugural lectures opened the two parts of the congress: Syriac Literature: a Crossroads of Cultures, by Sebastian Brock, and Les Suryan et la civilisation arabo-musulmane, by Samir Khalil Samir.

 

One theme linked all the presentations: the meeting of cultures.

 

As for the specifics of the Syriac symposium, the director of the USEK, Karaz Rizk, opened the event by affirming that, «the Syriac civilization was characterised by dialogue and openness. Functionaries, doctors, translators, artists, architects and writers were all part of a bridge toward the Greek world on one side and the Arab and Semitic world on the other, a fact which greatly contributed to the exchange between these cultures and civilizations»

 

In the inaugural lecture, professor Block, from Oxford University, discussed the influences on the Syriac language which were sometimes considered negative factors and expressions of a sort of foreign hegemony and oppression, though they often represent a source of wealth and a stimulation for new creativity. He especially insisted on the influence of the Jewish, Aramaic and Greek civilizations. As regards the role of the Syriac civilization in the translation movement, he affirmed that translation passed through two points: the Greek texts were first translated into Syriac and then from Syriac into Arabic. Syriac texts and manuscripts were also translated into diverse languages such as Arabic, Armenian, Persian and Greek, then later into Japanese, Russian and Chinese.

 

During the first day, the first session was dedicated to the sources and especially to the translations of the Bible in Syriac, known by the name of Peshita. The second session revealed the importance of the dialogue of cultures in the Greek and Syriac writings of James of Edessa and the relation between Arabic and Coptic in the life of Saint Macarius. On the second day, the patrimony of the Syriac Fathers was examined, especially James of Sarroug and Isaac the Syrian. India's Siromalabites took on the role played by some Indian scholars in the dialogue between Indian culture and the Syriac Church. Among other things, some presentations discussed the problematic nature of the limits between legend and historical truth, in relation to the tradition which claims that Syriac monks visited Umbria. Cultural dialogue had an essential role in the history of Syriac communities and peoples throughout their tormented history.

 

On the third day many themes were discussed, such as sacred archaeology and the influence of Syriac architecture in Lebanon, popular literature, history and geography. History for the Syriacs was expressed fundamentally in hagiography and martyrology. The situation of the Syriac Diaspora, both in Arab and Western countries, was also given attention by the participants. In the end a pedagogical programme was presented that would attempt to revive the Syriac and Aramaic languages, especially among young people.

 

At the end of the double conference, a general debate allowed one to strengthen the cooperation among researchers, especially among Easterners and Orientalists, to organize the publication of the Acts, and to vote unanimously for monsignor Javier Martinez's proposal to hold the 2008 congress in Granada.

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