The siege of northern Iraq against the nation’s ethnic and religious minorities by jihadist terror group Islamic State threatens to significantly alter the composition of the nation and write yet another chapter on genocide in human history. The threat is also a cultural one, however, as Islamic State terrorists kill hundreds of the last remaining speakers of Aramaic.
The Islamic State’s onslaught against minorities in Iraq escalated to unprecedented levels upon its seizure of Mosul, the second-largest city in the nation. There, they cleansed the city of its Christians, demanding the jiziya or “infidel’s tax,” their departure, or their lives. The Christians left, marking the first time since shortly after the life of Jesus that Mosul is devoid of Christian residents.
Many of those Christians are Assyrians – indigenous Iraqis who speak a form of Aramaic. Aramaic is the language Jesus is presumed to have spoken by most historians, and while rare around the world today, remained a prominent tongue in much of Iraq and Syria. It is the language spoken in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004).
Foreign Policy‘s Ross Perlin notes that much of the territory where Aramaic continues to be spoken overlaps with that which is currently under assault by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Some of these, in northern Iraq – Qaraqosh, Tel Kepe, and Karamlesh specifically – contained a significant Aramaic-speaking population as well as Kurdish and Yazidi minority groups. The eradication of these groups in Iraq, Perlin, continues, is particularly devastating to the language because the other major population of Aramaic speakers in the world lives in Syria – or used to, before the Syrian Civil War ravaged the Christian population of that nation.
While many Syrian Christians who speak Aramaic were killed or sent into exile by the war itself, the Islamic State has worked diligently to commit a full genocide against the Christians of that land, too, which they consider to be within the borders of the Islamic State itself. Islamic State jihadists have repeatedly crucified Christians – as well as Shi’ites and moderate Sunni Muslims – to impose their violent interpretation of Sharia law over the land.
Just as the ethnic cleaning of Yazidis from Iraq threatens to eliminate their religion from the planet, so too does the persecution of Christians threaten the existence of what is believed to be the first Christian language.
The death of a language is a critical loss for anthropologists. Linguist Ken Hale, as Perlin notes, “famously compared the destruction of a language to ‘dropping a bomb on the Louvre.'” The loss of Aramaic would be particularly damaging to scholars studying early Christianity and the development of Christian thought in the immediate AD era.