Effectively exiled from his friary in Mosul by the Islamic State last year, Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P. is working to preserve Christian manuscripts through digitization, recording a memory of Iraq's Christian past.
Fr. Najeeb 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 which he had started in the 1980s.
Over the years, Fr. 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, which are now controlled by 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 Islamic State seized Mosul in June. A month later Christians were effectively exiled from the city, and Islamic State continued to expand across Iraq's Nineveh province.
Fr. Michaeel collected some 1,300 manuscripts from the 14th to the 19th century, 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," Fr. 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 Islamic State on Aug. 7. Fr. Michaeel has been joined in Erbil by Fr. Columba Stewart, OSB, who is executive director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, which is participating in the preservation of the Syriac manuscripts.
Islamic State have 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 for their own use.
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. Fr. Laurent Lemoine, O.P., works with Fr. 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.”
By Andrea Gagliarducci