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In Fight to Preserve Culture, New Jersey Cathedral Performs Centuries-Old Rite

~MaryAlice Parks – Syrian-American Beat Reporter

Ancient chants, in a long-dead language, greeted those entering the redbrick St. Mark’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral here on Elm Avenue. Routine evening prayers transitioned into the night’s special occasion: the elevation of an esteemed community member to the position of “gospler deacon.”

The man being celebrated at St. Mark’s on a recent Sunday night has become a symbol of the fight to save the Syriac culture. Over 200 people, among them a dozen priests from up and down the east coast and Europe, attended the rare event, itself an act of religious conservation and a call for more preservation work to be done.

As a gospler deacon, George Kiraz, 47, will be able to read the gospel during services and assist in the giving of the Eucharist. In the Syrian Orthodox tradition, gosepler deacons are ranked just below priests.

St. Mark’s sits on a quiet residential street, its white steeple barely visible above the trees on the block.  Inside the church, the aesthetic is disjoined. The sanctuary has 15 rows of light, brown pews surrounded by plastered, ivory walls. The wood rafters above are neither particularly modern nor baroque.

At the front of the room is a grand and ornate altar, with three white, pillared structures, each topped with a gold dome, reminiscent of an Islamic turret. Blue light fills the space. There are fabrics, gold crosses, candlesticks, and tall bouquets of white and pink flowers. The center altar has a rail along the top with a white, embroidered curtain pulled to the side.

Three dark, marble steps separate the pews from this magnificent space. On these steps, facing the altar, Kiraz stood and knelt all night.

In an interview after the service, Kiraz said he was first drawn to the church by language.  Kiraz was born in Bethlehem, and there in his church he began learning classical Syriac, a dialect of Aramiaic, the language Jesus spoke.

For centuries, the ancient Eastern Christian heritage has struggled for survival. But in recent years with the escalating violence in Syria, the need to protect the church’s language and rituals has taken on a new urgency.

In high school, Kiraz emigrated to the U.S. with his family. As an adult, he continued to study the language alongside computer science. As a graduate student, he built digital fonts for ancient, Syriac characters.

Syriac was the primary scholarly language in the Middle East from the era of Christ until the 4th Century and the expansion of the Ottoman Empire and Arabic. Today, the language is hardly spoken but remains a classical, language for Eastern Christians. Even in Teaneck, New Jersey, all of the services at St. Mark’s are in the ancient tongue.

In 2001, Kiraz’s life took a turn. He lost his IT job in New York and decided to dedicate his time to conserving the Syriac church and language.

In 2002, he and his wife, Christine, opened a publishing house specializing in religious scholarship. He founded a non-profit, Beth Mardutho, that acquires manuscripts and publishes a journal on early-Christian studies.

Christine Nakatani, a longtime friend who worked with Kiraz as a computer scientist, attended the ordination and said she admired his ability to bridge the old world and the new.

“He is not burying himself in the past,” she said. “He is trying to preserve it for the future.”

The ordination service began with a Syriac prayer by the Archbishop for the Eastern United States, Mor Cyril Aphrem Karim. A massive man with a thick beard, and black cap, his voice echoed through the church.

Kiraz waited motionless in a white robe and red sash. The altar hummed with activity. Clergymen, readers and altar boys filled the sacred platform.

The prayer was followed by a series of hymns and readings. Members of the community offered responses in the foregone language by heart.

Visitors were given translated booklets, but even some students of Syriac said it was hard to follow the service.

Kiraz himself acquired, studied, and consolidated the texts needed to reconstruct the traditional service. His business printed the event’s program.

The service was traditional in more ways than language. The Archbishop waved saged-smoke over the crowd through a silver, antique burner. A plain-clothed choir guided the congregation from the balcony.  At the start, their old-world chants were austere, full of oriental vibrato and minor keys. Then, the tunes shifted. The accompanying violin livened up and the melodies became more cheerful.

The Archbishop switched to English.

“This elevation comes as token of our appreciation of the hard work George has been doing for the church here and the entire church,” he said in his thick accent and kind voice.

“His work is not just for the Holy Land, but for our heritage, the heritage of our Holy Church,” he continued. “The Lord does not like lukewarm. George loves the church.”

A self-described pessimist, Kiraz told friends when the fighting broke out in Syria last year, “This is probably the beginning of the end.” He and other community members fear the fate of Christians in the country and the region.

In the 1970s, Christian families left Turkey en masse after massacres in the country. Then, the wars in Iraq again propelled Christians to leave the Middle East in large numbers. Syria remained a relative stronghold for Christians in the region, with large seminaries and institutions. Despite a fair degree of security under President Bashar Assad’s regime, churches in the country, some of the oldest in the world and claiming roots back to the apostles, have been attacked and occupied by forces from both sides since the fighting began.

The first Syrian Orthodox Church in the U.S. was established in 1927, in New Jersey, and St. Mark’s Cathedral was consecrated in 1958, as the leading Syrian Orthodox cathedral in the country.

As a sign of Kiraz’s new office, the Archbishop cut three pieces of the new gospler deacon’s hair in the shape of a cross. The choir erupted in a high-pitched, rapid-fire yodel.

Elias Sarkar, choir Director, explained the unique, celebratory sound.

“It originated from the word Hallelujah, said over and over, faster and faster.”

“Hallelujah,” he repeated

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