Decades after Israel wiped out a village in the Holy Land, Christians there remain determined to preserve its heritage by keeping alive the language that Jesus spoke.
"Shlomo malfonito" — "Hello teacher"– intone some 20 pupils in the Arab-Israeli village of Jish, where half the population is Maronite, a people who for centuries have lived in the mountains of Lebanon and nearby.
The children get free lessons in Aramaic, an ancient tongue spoken during the time of Jesus Christ and kept alive down the centuries by fellow Maronites.
Shadi Khalul, 33, organized the lessons and teaches the language of his ancestors along with his brother, sister-in-law and three others so the young people in the northern village remember their roots in Biram some four kilometers (2.5 miles) away.
Jish village was razed by Israel in 1953, nearly five years after the authorities of the then six-month-old Jewish state evacuated its 1,050 residents in November 1948. They said it would be a temporary measure.
Biram was destroyed despite an Israeli Supreme Court ruling that ordered a return of the residents, who were Israeli citizens when they were expelled from their homes.
"We want to preserve the heritage of our ancestors in Biram, who learned Aramaic," says Khalul. "It’s a way of keeping alive the memory of what was the only Maronite village in Israel."
Most of Biram’s former residents settled in Jish, with the remainder spread out over other parts of Galilee and some going back to Lebanon.
But the decades that have passed have not eased the longing to return home.
"In our fight to return to Biram we have never resorted to violence," says Amir Khalul, Shadi’s brother and fellow teacher of Aramaic. "We have appealed to the justice system as citizens of this country."
They are also hoping that the Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Holy Land will improve their chances, and have asked Roman Catholic Church officials if the pontiff can raise the issue when he meets Israeli leaders.
"We hope the pope will bring up our case with Bibi (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu), but it remains to be seen if he will apply any pressure," says Shadi Khalul.
"For us the best scenario would be for the pope himself to visit Biram, and we proposed as much to the Apostolic Nuncio," the Vatican’s envoy to Israel.
In the classroom, the students are repeating words and phrases in Aramaic.
The classes always end in prayer, with pupils and teachers forming a circle and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
"Abu id bashmayo, nitkadash ishmokh, titi malakotokh… Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come…"
Some 60 children in all participate in the weekly one-hour class, where they also learn basic conversation in Aramaic.
"I already know to say "Shlomo aykano itayk? Aino tabto," 12-year-old Melodie Zaknoon says proudly. "It means ‘How are you? I’m doing fine’."
There Used to Be a Village
Today all that remains of Biram is Our Lady of Biram church and an ancient synagogue. The Israeli government has turned part of the village just a few kilometers from the Lebanese border into a public park.
The church has become a symbol of the attachment many former Biram residents and their offspring have for the place their families called home for centuries.
Families originally from Biram regularly celebrate mass in the stone church, whose cross has grown rusty over time. Marriages, christenings and funerals are also held there.
"That was my house," says 92-year-old Habib Issa, pointing to a pile of rocks among weeds and fig trees.
His face is lined with wrinkles and his mouth is toothless, but Issa’s grip is as strong as that of a man in his prime. The white-haired old man was one of the last people to leave the village, ordered out by the Israeli military.
He still recalls the encounter with the Israeli commander who told him to leave. "He was surly arrogant and spoke in a menacing way," Issa says.
Before their forced exile, the Maronites of Biram used to study Aramaic in two rooms attached to the church.
"We had two teachers who had come from Lebanon. One taught French and the other Aramaic," Issa says.
"Biram has been a gaping wound for more than 50 years and we will return no matter how long our exile lasts," proclaims a plaque on a wall of the church.