Cypriot Maronite children attend a Sunday mass with a Catholic nun in Cyprus May 9, 2010.
Cypriot Maronite children attend a Sunday mass with a Catholic nun in Cyprus May 9, 2010. Photo by Reuters
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As the Archbishop walks down the church aisle a melodic hymn rises from the congregation in an ancient tongue that Jesus would have recognized.

The Aramaic language of the earliest Christians lives on in the church services of a tiny village on the Turkish Cypriot side of the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, where a hybrid dialect of Aramaic is commonly spoken by just 1,000 people who are striving to keep it alive.

Maronites from the village of Kormakitis, on a sun-baked peninsula in northwestern Cyprus, have for centuries used a unique language to communicate now codified by experts as Cypriot Maronite Arabic, or CMA.

Rooted in Aramaic, CMA evolved with influences from Arabic, Latin, Turkish and Greek.

The service at the Catholic Maronite Church of St. George is in three languages; Arabic, the Syriac-Aramaic language that was actually spoken by the earliest Christians and Greek. Without a hymn book, every single person in the congregation chimes in, seamlessly switching from one language to the other.

Locals admit that not many in the congregation understand the meaning of the words in the Syriac-Aramaic hymns they were taught from infancy.

Like their own CMA language, it has been passed down to them phonetically. But in an attempt to boost dwindling numbers of people using CMA, an alphabet was established three years ago.

As a dialect used by a tiny minority on the east Mediterranean island where Greek and Turkish are the official languages, CMA has fallen victim to ethnic strife and misguided education policies. Of the 6,000 Maronites in Cyprus, only 900 to 1,000 people still use it.

"We are among the last to use this language," said Elias Zonias, who teaches CMA to children. He is compiling a dictionary for what was until now considered a "dead" language.. " I do not want anyone to say that our generation did not strive to preserve our heritage."

HERITAGE

The Maronites on Cyprus are descendants of Christians who fled what is now Lebanon and Syria from the 8th century onwards. They maintain the distinctive symbols of their roots; the Cedar of Lebanon, for example. And they have kept an integral link with the Catholic Church in Rome.

"We are bound by our faith, and our language," says Antonis Skoullos, a Maronite volunteer in a team assisting preparations for the state visit of Pope Benedict to Cyprus on June 4-6.

Offering a vista of golden barley fields intermixed with carob thickets on a gentle slope down to the Mediterranean sea, Kormakitis is one of only four Maronite villages in Cyprus.

Kormakitis saw its 2,000 strong population disperse in a 1974 Turkish invasion after a brief Greek-inspired coup. Some 137 people, all of them elderly, remained. Its tiny population swells at weekends with former residents and their families assisted by relaxed Turkish Cypriot rules on visits to north Cyprus since 2003.

The population upheaval was detrimental for the language but ignorance has also played its part.

In the 1960s, parents were encouraged to speak Greek to their children because of the high failure rate at the villages' only school, where the language of instruction was reek.

"Ninety five percent of children in 1960 didn't pass the year because they did not speak Greek," said Zonias. "Parents were told to keep speaking to children in Greek, and nursery school was created. That was the beginning of the demise of the language."

CMA has a vocabulary of about 3,000 words. There were probably many more, which disappeared with each passing generation. Three years ago, with assistance from a Semitic language expert, an alphabet was created.