As fighters from the Islamic State group rampage across northern Syria and Iraq, a group of priests are racing against time to save what's left of the region's Christian heritage. Dominican Order priests have already managed to get many precious artifacts and manuscripts safely to Erbil in Kurdistan.
Reports of massacres and beheadings of Christians and other minority groups have scared thousands into fleeing the jihadists' advance. In a region regarded as the cradle of civilization, it's no surprise that the rapid advance of the militant fighters has alarmed those looking to preserve the region's heritage.
The Dominican Order [also known as the Order of Preachers] - a Roman Catholic religious order founded 800 years ago - has deep roots among Christian communities in northern Iraq. For decades, Najeeb Michaeel - an Iraqi priest belonging to the Order - has worked to collect and preserve precious manuscripts. Now with the rise of the Islamic State group, his work has become all the more important.
"When the priests heard that jihadists were approaching, they threw the manuscripts in a few cars and raced out of there"
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. There’s been tension in northern Iraq since August but the situation has been bad for decades. The collection has already been moved on many occasions. It was in Karakosh – a town with a fairly large Christian population. But it was invaded by the jihadists in August, so the artifacts had to be moved to Erbil. When the priests heard that jihadists were approaching, they threw the manuscripts in a few cars and raced out of there - sometimes with only 30 minutes advance warning.
A collection of manuscripts awaiting restoration.
At the moment the manuscripts are in a protected zone. There isn’t an immediate threat… at least for now. But 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 [The city was captured in early June by IS group fighters. On Sunday, June 15, there was no mass held in the city].
"There are extremely valuable findings that we’ve come across, such as what could be a Carolingian manuscript"
In 2015, we’ll be celebrating 800 years since the Dominican Order was founded. This collection that we’re referring to belongs to brother Najeeb – an Iraqi priest in the Dominican Order. He began the painstaking work of collecting and preserving these manuscripts towards the end of the 1980s. The collection contains various manuscripts that date from the 14th to the 19th centuries. There are extremely valuable findings that we’ve come across, such as what could be a Carolingian manuscript. This collection brings together works the likes of which we have never seen before, especially from a Western point of view. There are manuscripts that focus on the Koran, theology, spirituality, music, and grammar.
A manuscript that dates from the 18th century.
Many of them were in a lamentable state. There is a whole complex work of restoring the manuscripts. They have to be found and collected. Then the various fragments have to be collated and put in the right order. The work is extremely delicate. Our project is to recreate the manuscripts – create facsimiles – and put together an exhibition. We’re going to display these facsimiles in the National Archives in France next May.
This article was written with FRANCE 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).