With the rise of the Islamic State, the rich, 2,000-year history of Christianity in Iraq–historically home to a large Christian population–has been significantly threatened. Many historic Christian monuments have been targeted for destruction, leaving the responsibility to preserve the nation’s Christian history to the monks remaining there.
NPR’s Alice Fordham traveled to Erbil, Iraq–a city under Kurdish control–which is 57 miles east of Mosul. She met two monks, Iraqi Father Najeeb Michaeel and Texan Father Columba Stewart, who are determined to rescue Christian artifacts. Father Michaeel’s congregation fled to Erbil after the Islamic State conquered their town Qaraqosh. Inside a safe house, the two men stock any relic they can find, including huge piles of books and manuscripts.
“This is a New Testament – altogether Saint Mark, Matthew and Luke and Jean here,” he described one book to Fordham. “And as you see, in many colors also here.”
Father Michaeel is a Dominican monk, an order present in Mosul since 1750. The monks brought many manuscripts to the historic town in the early 1800s, which resulted in a huge library. During his time in Mosul, father Michaeel photographed and digitalized as many as he could with help from Father Stewart’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library in Minnesota. But an impending attack by the Islamic State halted his efforts. He packed up a truck full of the collections to save them.
“I prepare everything, and take a very big truck and put all this collection,” he explained. “At 5 a.m., I came with a truck. We passed the three checkpoints without any problem. I think Virgin Mary have her hand to protect us.”
He left behind a library with 50,000 books. He also told Fordham other orders of monks lost all their books, and the militants now use the libraries as torture chambers.
In June, the Islamic State conquered Mosul and forced out its entire Christian population. For over 2,000 years, Christians and Muslims lived in peace in the northern city. The Assyrian International News Agency listed all 45 Christian institutions the terrorist group destroyed. Militants forced all shopkeepers to veil mannequins due to Sharia law. A video released in October showed the terrorists destroying churches in the city.
The Wall Street Journal reported on January 23 that the United States and Iraqi military forces began preparations to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State.