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They Knew the Islamic State Was Coming. Here's How These Brave Priests Scrambled to Secretly Save Key Historical Manuscripts.

They Knew the Islamic State Was Coming. Here's How These Brave Priests Scrambled to Secretly Save Key Historical Manuscripts.

"I think the Virgin Mary [had] a hand to protect us."

Father Najeeb Michaeel, an Iraqi priest who has worked for decades to digitize coveted Christian manuscripts, found himself scrambling to save truckloads of documents last year when the Islamic State terror group made advances in Iraq — just one of the many times that his quick action helped preserve documents that are vitally important to Middle Eastern history and identity.

Consider that members of his 800-year-old Dominican order, which have had a friary in Mosul since the 1750s, were already forced to move their library to the city of Qaraqosh when insurgents first entered the city in 2008.

But Michaeel and other faith leaders once again found themselves on the defensive when faced with the Islamic State's march into Qaraqosh last year, according to Catholic News Service.

Michaeel, who has been digitizing documents from the region since he founded the Center for the Digitization of Oriental Manuscripts in 1990, took quick action before Christians were exiled from the region, nabbing 1,300 manuscripts from the 14th to 19th centuries, loading them into trucks at 5 a.m. and secretly transporting and storing them in a secure location in the city of Erbil.

While many of the documents are Christian in nature, others are Koranic or have a focus on music or grammar, France 24 reported. 

Michaeel's actions were taken, in part, to preserve 2,000 years of Christian history in Iraq.

"We passed three checkpoints without any problem, and I think the Virgin Mary [had] a hand to protect us," the priest told NPR of his journey last summer with the documents. "The father or mother try to save the first thing — the children. So these books [are] my children."

Michaeel has been working with Father Columba Stewart, executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Collegeville, Minnesota, for quite some time, helping photograph and digitize Christian documents so that the public can read them.

The story of his work, which is being undertaken by other priests as well, was also covered by France 24 last year, with the outlet also noting at the time how documents and artifacts are bring transported to the city of Erbil.

Father Laurent Lemoine, another priest who lives in France but who has been to the region to help rescue pieces of Iraq's Christian history, explained why he, Michaeel and others are involved in the rescue, restoration and digitization process.


"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," he said. "The artifacts were almost destroyed several times. There’s been tension in northern Iraq since August but the situation has been bad for decades."

Read more about their efforts here.

(H/T: Catholic News Agency)

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