The Catholic University of America

June 16, 2015

Conference to Feature the Culture of Syriac Christianity


On June 21-24, The Catholic University of America will host The Seventh North American Syriac Symposium. The conference will bring together more than 100 university professors, graduate students, and scholars from around the world for discussion of the language, literature, and cultural history of Syriac Christianity, which extends chronologically from the first centuries Common Era to the present day, and geographically from Syriac Christianity’s homeland in the Middle East, to South India, China, and a worldwide diaspora.

“Syriac Christians have an almost 2,000-year tradition of literature and community life in what is now the Middle East. A lot of people in the West don’t necessarily know about this area of Christian heritage. But these are the very communities under threat in the Middle East today because of war, political disruption, and militant Islamic groups such as ISIS,” says Robin Darling Young, associate professor of spirituality in CUA’s School of Theology and Religious Studies, who served as chair of the local steering committee for the symposium.

“We can’t fix what is going on in the Middle East, but a conference like this is a way of saying these traditions have value and are an important part of the humanistic heritage of the last two millennia,” says Lev Weitz, assistant professor of history at CUA and a member of the symposium steering committee.

Syriac Christianity encompasses the churches of Eastern Christianity whose services feature liturgical use of ancient Syriac, a language closely related to the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. The conference will feature 65 research paper presentations and four keynote addresses.

“Syriac studies are in a period of upward growth and increased worldwide interest,” says Aaron Butts, assistant professor in CUA’s Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, who served as organizer of the symposium. “The Christian tradition is now viewed more broadly. Scholars are interested in the connection between Syriac Christians, Jews, and Muslims.”

The conference will begin on Sunday evening with vespers in Syriac at the Dominican House of Studies, and will be followed by three days of conference programming in the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center on CUA’s campus.

Keynote speakers for the event are:

  • Bas ter Haar Romeny, professor of ancient Mediterranean and Middle Eastern history at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam and a director of the Peshitta Institute
  • Dorothea Weltecke, chair for the history of religions at the University of Konstanz in Germany
  • Adam Becker, associate professor of classics and religious studies and director of the Religious Studies Program at New York University
  • Rev. Joseph Amar, professor of Syriac and Arabic and cofounder of the Program in Early Christian Studies at the University of Notre Dame

“Syriac Christianity is interesting in itself because it is in a completely different language from the more commonly known languages of Christianity, and it preserves cultural habits and ways of thinking that date back to Ancient Mesopotamia. It is a very dynamic and vital culture,” says Young.

A highlight for attendees will be a special exhibit of texts, artifacts, and photographs from CUA’s Semitics/Institute of Christian Oriental Research Library. The library, which is housed within the University’s Department of Semitics and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, contains some 50,000 books and journals as well as antiquities and photographic and archival materials. As a resource for the study of early Christianity and the Near East, it attracts scholars from around the world.

CUA is the only university to host the North American symposium a second time. It first hosted the conference in 1995. The symposium is a multidisciplinary effort at CUA, supported by the School of Arts and Sciences, the Center for the Study of Early Christianity, the Department of History, the Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, the Institute of Christian Oriental Research, and the School of Theology and Religious Studies.

Together with the related areas of Greek and Latin, and early Christian studies, Semitic and Egyptian languages are a cornerstone of academic excellence at CUA. The Semitics department, for example, is a center in the U.S. for the study of Aramaic (which includes Syriac), offering more courses on Aramaic than any other University in the United States. The University’s experts in Christian-Muslim studies have performed vital work in the area of interfaith dialogue.

For more information about the symposium and to view the full program, visit

MEDIA: To cover the Seventh North American Syriac Symposium, contact Katie Lee or Mary McCarthy Hines in the Office of Public Affairs at 202-319-5600 or





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