Baghdad (AFP) – As jihadists swept across Iraq three years ago, he rescued a treasure trove of ancient religious manuscripts from near-certain destruction. Father Najeeb Michaeel is now training fellow Iraqis to preserve their heritage.
“My duty is to save our heritage, a significant treasure,” the Dominican friar told AFP in a telephone interview from his office in the city of Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We can’t save a tree if we don’t save its roots, and a man without culture is a dead man.”
In August 2014, as the Islamic State (IS) group charged towards Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s largest Christian city, Father Najeeb filled his car with rare manuscripts, 16th century books and irreplaceable records.
He fled towards the relative safety of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
With two other friars from his Dominican order, he also moved the Oriental Manuscript Digitisation Centre (OMDC).
Founded in 1990, the centre works in partnership with Benedictine monks to preserve and restore documents. It also scans damaged manuscripts recovered from churches and villages across northern Iraq.
In all, some 8,000 Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian and Nestorian manuscripts have been digitally copied.
Today, the OMDC has about 10 employees, “displaced people who have turned into professionals” who host researchers from France, Italy or Canada, the friar said.
– ‘Whole heart into it’ –
The new recruits are all academics who lost their jobs after fleeing their homes during the jihadist takeover.
“They are working for the future and they know it. They put their whole heart into it,” said Father Najeeb, whose team includes Christians and Muslims.
Thousands of religious relics and sites, both Christian and Muslim, were destroyed by IS before Iraqi security forces finally declared victory against the extremists in December.
“I’ve trained four or five different teams,” said Father Najeeb, explaining that as Iraqi troops advanced against IS, many trainees returned home, forcing him to take on fresh recruits.
The centre now makes several copies of each document to guarantee its preservation. Originals are returned to the owners, one copy is kept on file and another posted on its online digital database.
Until 2007, these documents were kept in the convent of Al-Saa church, also known as Our Lady of the Hour, in the city of Mosul, which became the major battleground of Iraq’s war against IS.
The archives contain nearly 850 ancient manuscripts in Aramaic, Arabic and other languages, letters dating back three centuries and some 50,000 books.
Al-Saa church takes its name from its clock, which was a gift from France in 1880, given to the Dominicans in recognition of their social and cultural work.
The Dominican order had opened 25 schools across Mosul and its surrounding province, and — on the backs of camels trekking across the desert — brought Iraq its first printing house in 1857.
– ‘Peace, not the sword’-
But attacks against churches in Mosul were on the rise even before IS seized control of the city in 2014. At least five priests and a bishop had been murdered since 2004.
“I was on the list of religious figures to kill,” said Father Najeeb.
In 2007, he moved the archives to Qaraqosh, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) away.
Thanks to “a premonition” in late July 2014, the Dominicans relocated the archives once again, this time to Iraqi Kurdistan.
When IS pushed into the Christian city less than two weeks later, the friars filled their cars with the remaining documents and followed suit.
Jihadists tried to stop them at the Kalak crossroads into Iraqi Kurdistan but Kurdish peshmerga fighters intervened. The friars were left without a car and forced to continue on foot.
“As soon as I saw anyone with their hands empty, I handed them some of the cultural treasures and asked them to return them once they entered Kurdistan,” said the friar. “I got everything back.”
When he returned to Mosul last year to attend the first post-IS Christmas mass, Friar Najeeb found his church in ruins.
The tower that housed the clock had vanished, the convent had been converted into a jail, rooms transformed into workshops for bombs and explosive belts, and gallows had replaced the church altar.
But Father Najeeb, who plays organ and electric guitar, remains hopeful. “I’m optimistic. The last word will be one of peace, not the sword,” he said.