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MAALOULA, Syria (AP) _ Leaning over the counter in a shop nestled against the stone walls of a convent, the baker joked with a woman over whether he's charging too much for his flat, round loaves.

A simple scene, but rich in history because of the language they spoke.

``Jesus Christ spoke Aramaic,'' baker Michel Auba said proudly Friday as he bantered with his customers in the ancient Semitic tongue while steam smelling sweetly of fresh bread wafted from his shop into the steep, narrow street.

For thousands of years, Aramaic could be heard across the Middle East and into southern Europe. Now it's rare anywhere outside this place, about 40 miles north of Damascus.

Maaloula's stone and concrete houses cling to the mountainsides on either side of a narrow gorge, near two other villages where Aramaic also is spoken. Their isolation behind a line of rocky mountains helped the language survive.

The three farming villages, with a total population of about 5,000, have become more accessible in recent decades. And many of their young people have ``left the village to the big mountains,'' as the locals say, in search of education and jobs in Damascus or even as far away as the United States.

Those left behind insist Aramaic will survive, passed orally from generation to generation because the ancient script has been all but forgotten.

``In the whole world, only three villages speak Aramaic,'' said Hanan Zakhoum, a 32-year-old Catholic stonemason passing the time _ in Aramaic _ with Christian and Muslim friends on a Maaloula street.

``We're proud, as proud as if we'd sent a man to the moon,'' said.

Aramaic, thought to have first appeared 11 centuries before the birth of Christ, had become the common language of the Mideast by the 6th century BC.

Scholars believe Jesus preached in Aramaic, the language used by ordinary Jews of his time. Hebrew was reserved for the temple, government and the upper classes. The Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic, as were the Babylonian and Jerusalem versions of the Talmud.

A day before John Paul II was to become the first Roman Catholic pope ever to visit Syria, there was some grumbling here because Maaloula was not in his itinerary. The village is about 75 percent Christian, and most of the Christians are Catholic. Nationwide, Syria is about 90 percent Muslim.

Noting a planned visit to a mosque in Damascus, Zakhoum said, ``The pope should come to Maaloula before he goes to a mosque!''

Father Toufic Eid, Maaloula's parish priest, took a longer view, saying the pope couldn't be expected to visit every place dear to Christians in Syria. Yes, Eid said, Maaloula has much to be proud of: his 4th century Church of St. Serge; the ancient grave of the early Christian martyr St. Thecla, now surrounded by a modern convent; and, of course, Aramaic.

``But to visit an Islamic place, to show friendship between Christians and Muslims, is more important. To build trust between Muslims and Christians, it's a mission of humanity, it's a mission of charity,'' he said.

At any rate, Eid is enjoying fallout from the papal visit: an increase in tourists.

Some pilgrims from Europe have told him they had considered Syria too shaken by volatile Mideast politics to be safe, but were inspired to come by the pope's example. Groups from Germany and France crowded under the pale stone dome of Eid's church Friday and then wandered through the gift shop, where they could pick up laminated cards with an Aramaic version of the Lord's Prayer.

George Razkallah, 63, a retired high school English teacher, says some effort must be made to preserve Aramaic in the face of modern pressures.

He's responsible for many of the Aramaic versions of the Lord's Prayer, Bible verses and folk songs available in printed versions or on tape at Maaloula gift shops. Strolling the streets Friday, has was greeted at every turn as ``ustaz,'' or ``teacher.''

In his songs, Razkallah said, he tells a younger generation more interested in ``driving cars and working in shops'' of the simple pleasures of village life.

``I try to remind the people of our past, how our fathers and grandfathers lived,'' he said. ``I ask them not to forget the tongue, the Aramaic tongue, because it is very, very precious.''