Syrian Identity in Bethlehem: From Ethnoreligion to Ecclesiology

in Iran and the Caucasus
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At first sight, the Syriac Orthodox community in Bethlehem appears to be well-described as “ethno-religious”: while many Palestinian siryān emphasise their connection to an ancient Aramean ethnos, this identification also usually entails some relationship to the Syriac Orthodox Church. However, “religion” (ethno or otherwise) is arguably too overburdened a category to tell us much about how being siryāni in Bethlehem compares to being something else. I propose, instead, that thinking of Syrian self-articulation as a kind of ecclesiology, a tradition of incarnating a body (specifically Christ’s), draws attention to the creative, situated and dialogic process of being and becoming siryāni, while problematising categories with which social scientists customarily think about groups. Unlike ethno-religion, ecclesiology captures the fraught pursuit of redeemed sociality, connecting Bethlehem’s destabilized local present to universal and eternal hope. In Bethlehem, what’s more, these dialogues proceed in tantalizing proximity to places and paths, which are haunted by the incarnate (Aramaic-speaking) God whom Syriac Orthodox Christians embody and envoice. Indeed, while this Syrian body is often narrated as an organic, racial fact, nevertheless it is susceptible to a kind of transubstantiation at the margins when an “other” participates fully in the life of this body, especially via the church.

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