Iraqi Priests Protect Historic Christian Writings From Islamic State
Dominican Father Najeeb Michaeel rescued 1,300 manuscripts from Mosul last summer, as it was being overrun by the Islamist militants.
ERBIL, Iraq — Effectively exiled from his friary in Mosul by the Islamic State last year, Dominican Father Najeeb Michaeel is working to preserve Christian manuscripts through digitization, recording a memory of Iraq’s Christian past.
Father Michaeel is an Iraqi native who studied in the U.S. and founded, in 1990, the Center for the Digitization of Oriental Manuscripts to foster the collection and recording of ancient manuscripts.
Over the years, Father Michaeel has collected some 750 Christian manuscripts in order to preserve them and to make them available for study by making digital copies.
The archives of the Dominican order in Iraq are a testimony to the Christian presence in Iraq, which stretches nearly 2,000 years in cities such as Mosul and Bakhdida that are now controlled by the Islamic State.
Mosul had had a Dominican friary since the 1750s, with both friars and the Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena. The friary amassed a large library of thousands of ancient manuscripts, as well as more than 50,000 more modern volumes.
When an Islamist insurgency hit Mosul in 2008 following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Dominicans smuggled their library to Bakhdida, a city populated primarily by Syriac Catholics, only 20 miles away.
Then, in 2014, the Sunni Islamist group the Islamic State seized Mosul in June. A month later, Christians were effectively exiled from the city, and the Islamic State continued to expand across Iraq’s Nineveh province.
Father Michaeel collected some 1,300 manuscripts from the 14th to the 19th centuries and put them in two large trucks in the early morning, transferring them to a secret location in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they have been kept safe. They include not only Christian works but manuscripts on the Quran, music and grammar.
“We passed three checkpoints without any problem, and I think the Virgin Mary [had] a hand to protect us,” Father Michaeel said Jan. 26 in an interview with National Public Radio.
The library of 50,000 modern books was left behind in Bakhdida, and the city was seized by the Islamic State on Aug. 7.
Father Michaeel has been joined in Erbil by Benedictine Father Columba Stewart, who is executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, which is participating in the preservation of the Syriac manuscripts.
The Islamic State has destroyed belongings of the non-Sunnis who have fled their territory, showing no regard for historical preservation. Convents and monasteries have been destroyed or requisitioned. In Mosul, a mound over the tomb of the prophet Jonah, on top of which a mosque was built, was destroyed with explosives in July.
Dominican Father Laurent Lemoine works with Father Michaeel. He told France 24 last October that “we’re trying to save these cultural artifacts because in northern Iraq it seems that everything is on the road to destruction: people of course, but also our cultural heritage. The artifacts were almost destroyed several times.
“Across the region, Christianity is in the process of being swept away. Mass has been celebrated in Mosul for 1,600 years. This year was the first time that there hasn’t been a Mass in all that time.”
- andrea gagliarducci
- iraqi christians
- islamic state
- father laurent lemoine
- father najib michaeel