Shadi Khalloul, founder of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Asso­ci­ation, works to keep the culture and lan­guage alive. Rachael Reynolds | Courtesy

On Wednesday, the Israeli Knesset passed a bill allowing Aramaic Chris­tians to reg­ister for free as their own eth­nicity in Israel.

Pre­vi­ously, Aramaic Chris­tians had to pay a cum­bersome $400 to reg­ister in the Israeli state. But now, according to Shadi Khalloul, the founder of the Israeli Christian Aramaic Asso­ci­ation, this bill not only makes it much easier for Aramaic Chris­tians to reg­ister, but also will help the state of Israel to rec­ognize the Aramaic Christian com­munity as sep­arate from their Arabic Muslim neighbors.

Khalloul belongs to a group of about 10,000 Maronite Chris­tians who live in Israel. The Maronite Church dates back to A.D. 350 and was set apart largely because its members con­tinued to speak Aramaic, which many believe to be the lan­guage of Jesus.

In northern Israel, close to the Lebanese border, the ruins of Kfar Baram, an old Maronite Christian village, stand to tell the story of how the sect today is fighting to retain its culture. In 1953, amid danger on the Lebanese border, the new Israeli gov­ernment told Chris­tians in the village to evacuate their homes and move to Jish.

The Chris­tians returned later and found the buildings were destroyed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Khalloul said this was because it was dif­ficult for the Israeli gov­ernment to dis­tin­guish between the Aramaic Chris­tians who used to live there and their Arabic Muslim neighbors, many of whom aim for Israel’s destruction. Khalloul worked for 10 years up until now to pass a bill that would establish Aramaic Chris­tianity as a dis­tinct eth­nicity, and he hopes to con­tinue strength­ening Christian-Jewish rela­tions.

“Your fathers are our fathers,” he said on behalf of his com­munity. “We are proud to be sons of the same race … and we hope that God will save the Jews from per­se­cution.”

In addition to pre­serving his people’s eth­nicity, Khalloul is also helping to revive the lan­guage of the Maronite Church, Aramaic. One way his com­munity in Jish does this is through Aramaic summer camps for children.

On their January trip to Israel, 42 stu­dents and two pro­fessors from Hillsdale visited Kfar Baram and recited the Lord’s Prayer together in Aramaic while standing inside the old stone Church of Maria. The lan­guage is close to Israel’s national lan­guage, Hebrew. According to Khalloul, the two lan­guages enrich each other and share similar words. Khalloul said he wants to see a revival of Aramaic among Chris­tians similar to that which occurred with Hebrew among the Jews over the past 100 years.

“If the Jews suc­ceeded, we can succeed,” Khalloul said.

Hillsdale’s tour guide on the trip, Jeremy Collins, sug­gested two dif­ferent pos­si­bil­ities for the lan­guage of Jesus: some claim that he spoke Hebrew, since many works and letters from Jesus’s time were written in Hebrew, and the lan­guage was pos­sibly spoken up until the fifth century. Others, including the pope, suggest that he spoke Aramaic.

Several Hillsdale stu­dents said they enjoyed getting to meet Khalloul and hear about the work he is doing there.

“I think it’s really cool he’s reviving an old lan­guage,” sophomore Calvin Kinney said. “It’s also cool to see his per­sis­tence since his village has been destroyed.”

Chris­tians make up only about 2 percent of the Israeli pop­u­lation, and there are only about 10,000 Maronite Chris­tians cur­rently living in Israel. While there is cer­tainly danger for Chris­tians in living in the Middle East, Khalloul said he is thankful to live in Israel.

“Chris­tians in Israel feel safe and pro­tected because of Israel’s strong mil­itary,” he said. “If this would be weakened, we would have problems. If Israel is strong, we as Chris­tians are strong and safe as well.”

Sophomore Katarina Bradford said Khalloul’s sit­u­ation demon­strates that Israel is an anomaly in the Middle East.

“I asked him what life is like as a Christian in Israel,” she said. “He said it is won­derful. It is the only place in the Middle East where he can have lunch with a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian, a homo­sexual, and an atheist, and have a peaceful meal … Chris­tians are such a minority in the nation of Israel and you think they would be mar­gin­alized, but it’s the only place where you can live in the Middle East and thrive.”