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Germany's Aramaic Christians seek support in their church

March 29, 2024

Some 120,000 Christians in Germany speak Aramaic, thought to be the language spoken by Jesus Christ. Efforts are underway to keep the language alive.

Bietigheim-Bissingen's Syrian Orthodox church seen from inside
Bietigheim-Bissingen's Syrian Orthodox church seen from insideImage: Linda Güven

The Syriac Orthodox Mor Petrus & Paulus congregation in the southwestern German city of Bietigheim-Bissingen is a diverse community, according to Linda Güven, a 35-year-old religion teacher. 

The congregation, located some 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) north of Stuttgart, inaugurated its own imposing place of worship in 2019, fulfilling a decadeslong dream.

"We have congregants who came to Germany as young migrant workers over 50 years ago," Güven, a member of the congregation, told DW. "But there are also those who fled their homeland in the 1990s. And over the past 10 years, we have had refugees who fled Iraq or the Syrian civil war."

A lively church

For a long time, Bietigheim-Bissingen's Syriac Orthodox Christians, and those from other neighboring towns, have been regularly gathering in their meeting place on the outskirts of an industrial park. Once a month, the congregation puts on a pensioners' get-together. Every Sunday, there is a playgroup for toddlers, and the church has an active youth program. 

Linda Guven is seen inside a church
Linda Güven is keen to help youngsters learn AramaicImage: Christoph Strack/DW

Some older congregants speak only broken German, and you can hear elements of Swabian dialect in the fluent German of the younger ones. "Those who have lived here for two or three generations have usually put down roots and attended university," said Güven. "There are doctors, lawyers and teachers among our congregation."

Syriac Orthodox Christians rely on the church. "We don't have a consulate or foreign representation because we don't have a state — the first point of contact remains the church; that's where we seek support," she said. "The clergy and congregations tried to help and to mediate during the latest refugee influx."

The Syriac Orthodox Church originated in what is today the city of Antakya, southeastern Turkey. A Christian community was established there soon after Jesus is believed to have died, making it one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.

Jesus would have spoken Aramaic

Members of the Syriac Orthodox Church speak Aramaic and their liturgy is in Aramaic, too. Yet today, the language is endangered.

And yet, Aramaic is the language that most historians agree Jesus Christ — whose purported teachings, as recorded in the Bible, form the basis for the Christian religion — would have spoken.

A sculpture of the resurrected Jesus Christus
There is consensus among historians that Jesus Christ likely spoke AramaicImage: DW

Although written in Greek, the New Testament Gospels of Mark and of Matthew both quote Jesus' pleading last words on the cross as spoken in Aramaic: "Eloi eloi lamma sabachthani," or "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?"

Over the past century, Aramaean Christian history has become global. Today, only several tens of thousands of still live in their old homeland, Tur Abdin, in Turkey's mountainous southeast. The rest of the 5-million-strong community lives scattered across the world — in Australia, India, the US, Latin America and Europe.

Their disperal was sparked by persecution suffered within the Ottoman Empire from 1915 onward, when waves of violence claimed the lives of well over a million Christians, including hundreds of thousands of Syriac Orthodox Christians.

Aramaic congregations growing in Germany

Today, Germany is home to about 120,000 Aramaic speakers. Several large western German states have legally recognized the Syriac Orthodox Church, paving the way for religious education, for example. And while the Catholic and Protestant Churches are seeing membership numbers drop by the thousands each year — forcing them to abandon church buildings — Orthodox and Middle Eastern Oriental churches are growing.

There are numerous Aramaic-speaking congregations in Germany, most in cities and municipalities in the west. The archbishop of Aramaic Christians in Germany, Mor Philoxenus Mattias Nayis, lives in Warburg, Westphalia, in a former Catholic monastery that the Syro-Aramaeans purchased and renovated decades ago.

A Christian nun returns to her ancestral home in Turkey

Güven is on a mission — not only is she qualified to teach English, history and Catholic religious studies, she has also received training in Syriac Orthodox theology and religious education at the University of Education in Schwabisch Gmund, which began offering degree courses in autumn 2021.

Until recently, Syriac Orthodox theology had been taught in school by priests, most of whom had studied in Tur Abdin decades ago. That is changing now that Germany is training teachers like Güven.

Güven became Germany's first state-approved Syriac Orthodox religious instructor for schoolchildren in mid-2023. She proudly shows off a German-language textbook on Syriac Orthodox religion that religious educator Josef Önder wrote together with students, titled "On the Path to Faith — Syriac Orthodox Religious Education."

"This," she said, "is the first Syriac Orthodox religious textbook in the world to be compiled according to a school education plan."

Linda Guven is seen standing in a classroom
Güven is qualified to teach Syrian Orthodox religion in German schoolsImage: epd

Many pictures featured in the textbook show scenes of rural life. "That's what defines our community when you go back to our roots," said Guven. "In many cases, our parents or grandparents were shepherds and farmers, Tur Abdin is an agricultural region." The pictures give students a connection to that life. 

Güven's enthusiasm is palpable. "I'm passionate about this because it's important to me," she said, adding that she wants to "offer the children a religious home" and "strengthen their identity." This also includes teaching Aramaic, because "the language is part of our identity." That is why Güven begins every religious lesson with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic.

At the moment, Güven teaches several classrooms of pupils at two different schools, "80 to 85 children, from different age groups," she said. "And the number is growing."

On top of that, Güven has set yet another goal for herself: she wants to write a doctoral thesis. She intends to use the opportunity to scientifically examine how the Syriac Orthodox faith is taught in schools and local congregations.

This article was originally written in German.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C