More than 1,000 ancient Christian documents have been saved by a Dominican priest who managed to escape ISIS militants in Iraq.
Father Nageeb Michaeel, previously director of the Digital Centre for Eastern Manuscripts at the Mar Behnam Syriac Catholic Monastery, fled Qaraqosh in the middle of the night with thousands of other Christians and religious minorities in August.
He told Kurdish news agency Rudaw that he packed up a collection of 1,300 ancient documents on August 6, when the first bomb fell on his city.
Father Nageeb had been in the process of digitalising the collection, borrowed from the Chaldean Patriarchate in Baghdad, which has been described as containing “really important patriarchal manuscripts”.
Sending the fragile documents ahead in a vehicle, the priest then walked 40km on foot to Erbil with around 30,000 others.
“It was terrible. There were women and children with no food and water,” he said of the ordeal.
Qaraqosh was captured by Islamic State militants in the days following Michaeel’s departure. Militants pushed back Kurdish troops and moved in overnight to take over four Christian-majority towns, including Qaraqosh which had been home to Iraq’s largest Christian community.
“If I hadn’t transported and kept the manuscripts, they would have been destroyed like so many churches and monasteries in Mosul and the Nineveh plain,” Father Nageeb said.
“[ISIS] has no respect for intellectuals. In Mosul, they killed many doctors and professors who were Muslim.”
He did not disclose where the documents are now being held, but confirmed that they represent a “sizeable part of Iraq’s cultural heritage”. Some of the manuscripts are from the 14th century.
The priest is now helping those who have been displaced in Erbil to find food, water and shelter, and said that the situation for tens of thousands of vulnerable people is getting desperate. “We are in a tunnel and cannot see the light,” he said.
The Christian population in Iraq has fallen dramatically as ISIS continues to gain momentum. In 2003 there were an estimated 1.5 million Christians living across the country. There are now thought to be fewer than 200,000.
In an earlier interview, Father Nageeb promised to continue to help his people, and work to preserve the Christian heritage of Iraq.
“I believe it is better for me to stay with my own population, in my own country,” he told the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research.
“I want to be there to help people—especially the handicapped, the homeless, and families who are in trouble—not just with material things but also to help give them direction, power, and faith. We are there supporting each other, walking together, falling together.”
He continued: “We trust in God, and we believe that God is good. We also believe in doing good to each other. There are many minorities in Iraq, and most of them are afraid. Many things are good in Iraq, but they are hidden. We are scared to do good to each other because so much has been destroyed. But many people want to do what is good, to rebuild Iraq, and to prepare for the future.”