Piece by Piece, Monks In Iraq Scramble to Preserve the Country’s Christian History

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

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.

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.

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Alice Fordham

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