The Christian community in Iraq is facing a decreasing population of Syriac speakers due to years of conflict. However, they are taking measures to preserve their language by launching a television channel dedicated to its revitalization and the preservation of hundreds of old Syriac books and manuscripts.

Iraq’s shrunken and conflict-scarred Christian community is launching a new television channel to save their dying language, spoken for more than 2,000 years.

Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic, has traditionally been the language spoken by Christians in Iraq and neighboring Syria, mostly in homes but also in some schools and during church services.

However, Syriac-speaking communities in the two countries have declined over the years, owing to decades of conflict driving many to seek homes in safer countries. In Iraq, the Christian population is thought to have fallen by more than two-thirds in just over two decades.

“It’s true that we speak Syriac at home, but unfortunately, I feel that our language is disappearing slowly but surely,” said Mariam Albert, a news presenter on the Syriac-language Al-Syriania television channel.

Iraq’s government launched the channel in April to help keep the language alive. It has around 40 staff and offers a variety of programming, from cinema to art and history.

‘Sidelined’ but not dead

Iraq is a cradle of civilizations, including the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, who produced the earliest written legal code. The country was also home to the city of Ur, which the Bible cites as Abraham’s birthplace.

Today, the country is overwhelmingly Shiite Muslim but also home to Sunni Muslims, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis, and other minorities, while Arabic and Kurdish are the official languages.

Before the 2003 United States-led invasion of the oil-rich country, Iraq was home to around 1.5 million Christians.

In the 20 years since, which included the brutal onslaught of the Islamic State group (IS) that swept the country in 2014, their population has declined to roughly 400,000, mostly living in the north.

‘Our mother tongue’

The earliest written record of Syriac dates to the first or second century BC and the language reached its peak between the fifth and seventh centuries AD, according to Kawthar Askar, head of the Syriac language department at Salahaddin University in Arbil.

At its height, Syriac was spoken in everyday conversation, used in literature, the sciences, and within public administration.

With the seventh-century Islamic conquests, more people in the region began speaking Arabic.

By the 11th century, Syriac was clearly declining.

Despite the decades of conflict ravaging Iraq, hundreds of Syriac books and manuscripts have survived.

In 2014, days before IS fighters seized swathes of northern Iraq, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul left the city, salvaging a trove of centuries-old Syriac manuscripts from the invading jihadists.

Around 1,700 manuscripts and 1,400 books—some dating to the 11th century—are now conserved at Arbil’s Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts, which is supported by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO, the United States Agency for International Development, and the Dominican Order.

Miroslava Salazar with AFP