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Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq's Christian History

Father Najeeb Michaeel shows off one of the many Christian manuscripts he saved from Iraq's Christian libraries.
Alice Fordham

In an unfinished building in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, displaced Christian children sing a little song about returning to their village. "We're going back," they sing, "to our houses, our land, our church."

Right now, they're living in an open concrete structure. The self-styled Islamic State, or ISIS, took over their home village of Qaraqosh, and the Christians fled in fear, on foot.

They finish their song and applause breaks out from two unlikely figures. One is a beaming Iraqi in white robes, Father Najeeb Michaeel. The other is Father Columba Stewart, a tall, spare and pale Texan with black-rimmed glasses and black vestments. Both are monks.

Michaeel explains that the church and various NGOs have provided shelter, heaters, pots, pans and food. But Stewart's main reason for coming from his monastery in Minnesota is a parallel rescue project, located in a secret house nearby.

Father Najeeb Michaeel, a Iraqi Dominican monk, has been trying to further preserve Iraq's Christian texts by digitizing the ones he has been able to save.
Alice Fordham / NPR
Father Najeeb Michaeel, a Iraqi Dominican monk, has been trying to further preserve Iraq's Christian texts by digitizing the ones he has been able to save.

Michaeel is afraid to reveal the precise location, but in a cool, sunlit room there is a mass of books.

"It's a big collection of our archive, and the manuscripts there and the old books," he says proudly.

Father Michaeel has stashed a substantial part of what remains of the Christian libraries of Iraq.

There have been Dominican monks in the city of Mosul since about 1750. They amassed a library of thousands of ancient manuscripts and say they brought the printing press to Iraq in the early 1800s. Rattling around in a box, Michaeel brings out Aramaic typeset.

As an Islamist insurgency roiled Mosul in 2008, monks smuggled their library out, bit by bit, to the Christian village of Qaraqosh. Last summer, when ISIS was inching closer, Michaeel took action. He prepared everything and put the collection in a big truck at 5 a.m.

"We passed three checkpoints without any problem, and I think the Virgin Mary [had] a hand to protect us," he says.

Michaeel had to leave the library of more than 50,000 regular books. He knows other orders of monks have lost all their libraries, and he believes monasteries and churches have been looted and used as prisons or torture chambers by the extremists. But the manuscripts and antiquities in his care, he brought here.

"The father or mother try to save the first thing — the children," he says. "So these books [are] my children."

In Qaraqosh, he had been working on a digitizing project, headed by Stewart's Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Minnesota. Father Michaeel had gathered manuscripts from all around Iraq and was photographing them so scholars worldwide could read them.

Stewart studies manuscripts in Syriac, a variant of the Aramaic language that dates back to the time of Jesus.

The monks explain there's actually two dialects: western Syriac and eastern Syriac. Michaeel sings the "Our Father" prayer in both to demonstrate the differences. Father Columba studies the way prayers shift across dialects and needs the manuscripts to do it. He's brought new equipment so the work can go on.

Every night in Erbil, in drafty, half-built structures, the displaced families huddle, sing the old prayers together and hope they'll go home.

In private, the monks say they think this upheaval will drive the last of Iraq's Christians out. They're trying to document as much of the heritage as they can before all this disappears.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.
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