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Inside a small Catholic church in Murray, a priest and his 120 parishioners still speak the language spoken by Christ.

Aramaic, an ancient language used throughout the Middle East at the time of Jesus, is the language of tradition in the Maronite Catholic Church and a tradition closely embraced at St. Jude's Maronite Catholic Church."Why? Because this is the language of our Lord," said Father Gebran Bou-Merhi.

Father Bou-Merhi, born in Damour, Lebanon, came to Salt Lake City and the only Maronite Church in Utah at 4893 S. Wasatch St. three months ago, after being ordained in the Maronite Church in 1987.

His church is one of the largest Eastern-rite communities of the Roman Catholic Church. Its origins can be traced back to the fifth century in Syria, where followers of St. Maron established the first church after Maron's death in 410 A.D.

The church flourished for centuries in the Middle East, retaining many of its original practices. There are 53 Maronite parishes in the United States, said Father Bou-Merhi, 34. Half of all U.S. members are Lebanese, he said.

The Maronite Church, although a Catholic institution, follows a set of practices not found in other rites of the Catholic Church. Maronites, for example, continue to use Aramaic for certain portions of the liturgy.

"We should keep this language," Father Bou-Merhi said in an accent thick with his native tongue. "We should witness this tradition because if we look back through our history, everything was written in this language," he said.

Aramaic is also important to the 45 families who make up the parish at St. Jude's. They believe it is an important aspect of their religion and should be retained, Father Bou-Merhi said.

Aramaic was used for centuries in the Maronite church. But because of Arab invasions and the Latinization of the church, Aramaic was slowly replaced by Arabic and other languages, Father Bou-Merhi said.

Still, the language endured through certain parts of the Maronite mass. At St. Jude's, the language is used during the consecration of the Eucharist.

The Maronite Church has an organization partially separate from that of the Catholic Church. Its patriarch is Archbishop Franics M Zayek. But the Maronites still are under the auspices of the Vatican.

"The Maronites are very faithful to the Catholic Church and the Pope . . . the attitude of the Maronite Church, especially in Lebanon, is we are very close to the Pope, we listen to him," Father Bou-Merhi said.

Language is not the Maronite Church's only tradition. Parishioners hold an annual Lebanese festival to celebrate through native foods, dance and music. On April 22, the church will hold its annual Lebanese dinner at St. Ann's Cultural Center, 450 E. 21st South.

While Father Bou-Merhi attends to the needs of his Murray parish, he said he is pained by the turmoil in his homeland, where most Lebanese are Moslem.

The tragedies of war in the Middle East disturb Father Bou-Merhi because members of the warring factions in his homeland "are my brothers . . . and I believe in the universal church," he said.

Father Bou-Merhi's transition to life in Utah, after moving from Youngstown, Ohio, where he was deacon at another parish, has been harmonious, he said. "I have been well accepted here. It was easy to adjust."

But his arrival in the United States in 1986 was not without its trials, Father Bou-Merhi said. Learning the language proved challenging, and even now he is relieved when a parishioner assists him with his English.