Pope Francis Presented with Historic Prayer Manuscript Saved from Islamic State

Dating back to sometime between the 14th and 15th century, the book contains liturgical prayers in Aramaic for the season of Easter in the Syriac tradition.

Pope Francis is presented with an Aramaic prayer manuscript at the Vatican Feb. 10, 2021.
Pope Francis is presented with an Aramaic prayer manuscript at the Vatican Feb. 10, 2021. (photo: Vatican Media / Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis was presented on Wednesday with a historic Aramaic prayer manuscript rescued from the Islamic State’s destructive occupation of northern Iraq.

Dating back to sometime between the 14th and 15th century, the book contains liturgical prayers in Aramaic for the season of Easter in the Syriac tradition.

The manuscript was formerly kept in the Great Al-Tahira Immaculate Conception Cathedral (pictured below), the Syriac Catholic cathedral in Bakhdida, also known as Qaraqosh. The cathedral was plundered and set alight when the Islamic State had control of the town from 2014 to 2016.

Pope Francis is due to visit the cathedral in Bakhdida on his upcoming trip to Iraq on March 5-8.

The book was discovered in northern Iraq in January 2017 by journalists — when Mosul was still in the hands of Islamic State — and sent to the local bishop, Archbishop Yohanna Butros Mouché, who entrusted it to a federation of Christian NGOs for safekeeping.

Like Bakhdida’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral itself, the manuscript recently underwent a thorough restoration process. 

The Central Institute for the Conservation of Books (ICPAL) in Rome oversaw the restoration of the manuscript, which was funded by the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage. 

The 10-month restoration process involved consultation with experts at the Vatican Library, which has Syriac volumes dating back to the same period. The only original element of the book that was replaced was the thread that bonds it together.

Pope Francis received a small delegation in the library of the Apostolic Palace on Feb. 10. The group presented the pope with the restored liturgical text.

The delegation included the head of the restoration laboratory of ICPAL, Archbishop Luigi Bressan, the retired archbishop of Trento, and the leader of the Federation of Christian Organizations in International Voluntary Service (FOCSIV), the Italian federation of 87 NGOs that helped to ensure the book’s safety when it was found in northern Iraq.

During the meeting with the pope, FOCSIV’s president Ivana Borsotto said: “We are in your presence because in recent years we have saved and restored in Italy, thanks to the Ministry for Cultural Heritage, this ‘refugee book’ — a sacred book of the Syriac-Christian Church of Iraq, one of the oldest manuscripts preserved in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in the city of Qaraqosh in the Nineveh Plains.”

“Today we are happy to return it symbolically into the hands of His Holiness to return it to its home, to its Church in that tormented land, as a sign of peace, of brotherhood,” she said.

A spokesperson for FOCSIV told CNA that the organization hopes that the pope will be able to bring this book with him during his apostolic visit to Iraq next month, but cannot say at this time if it will be possible.

“We believe that in bringing Kurdistan refugees back home to their cities of origin, as part of the action of development cooperation and international solidarity, it is also necessary to rediscover the common cultural roots, those that over the centuries have woven a history of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in this area,” Borsotto said after the audience.

“This allows for the recreation of the conditions that can lead the population to a cohesive and peaceful new collective and community life, especially for these people for whom the long period of occupation, violence, war, and ideological conditioning has deeply affected their hearts.”

“It is up to the projects of cultural cooperation, education, training to rediscover their traditions and the millenary culture of acceptance and tolerance of the entire Middle East.”

Borsotto added that although the final pages of the manuscript remain badly damaged, the prayers it contains “will continue to mark the liturgical year in Aramaic and still be sung by the people of the Nineveh Plains, reminding everyone that another future is still possible.”

Oscar Wergeland, “Service in a German Village Church,” ca. 1880

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