03/17/2018, 10.08
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One Iraqi Dominican’s mission to save 'treasures' of culture from jihadist madness

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel: "A man without culture, is a dead man". With the arrival of the Islamic State, he transferred the religious and cultural heritage from Mosul and Qaraqosh to Iraqi Kurdistan. Today he continues his work teaching Christians and Muslims. Thousands of volumes and century old documents saved thanks to his work.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) - For three years his mission has been to save manuscripts and other "treasures" of the Iraqi religious and cultural heritage, stealing them away from the devastating barbarism and destruction of the Islamic State (IS, ex Isis) . Today, following the military defeat of the jihadist movement, the Dominican friar Fr. Najeeb Michaeel has decided to pass on his knowledge to other enthusiasts and scholars.

"My task - says the religious from his refuge in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan - is to save our heritage, a significant treasure". Because, he adds, it is not possible "to save a tree if its roots are not saved". And a man "without culture, is a dead man".

In August 2014, while the Daesh militia [Arabic acronym for the IS] headed for Qaraqosh and the other Christian towns of the Nineveh plain, he crammed his car with rare manuscripts and precious volumes. Some of these date back to the 16th century and are unique and irreplaceable texts of the cultural tradition (Christian and non) of the region.

In order to fulfill his mission to safeguard the heritage of Iraq, Fr. Najeeb decided to move to Kurdistan, together with two other friars of the Dominican order, With two other friars from his Dominican order, he also moved the Oriental Manuscript Digitization Centre (OMDC). Founded in 1990, the center works in partnership with Benedictine monks to preserve and restore documents. It also scans damaged manuscripts recovered from churches and villages across northern Iraq.

Thanks to the meticulous work of the religious and the personnel working, up to 8 thousand texts of the Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian and Nestorian traditions have been saved on digital files in these years. A part of the staff of the OMDC is made up of "displaced persons" [Christians and Muslims, precise with a touch of pride] who escaped during the advance of ISIS and who, over time, have become "professionals" of conservation; the latter have also opened the doors of their homes, to host scholars and researchers from France, Italy and Canada. "They work for the future - says Fr. Najeeb - and they know it. And they do it with all their heart ".

In these years of jihadist folly, the militiamen of the Islamic State have devastated or trafficked thousands of artifacts and treasures belonging to the artistic, cultural and religious heritage of Iraq. In these years, different personalities of the Iraqi Church, like the Chaldean patriarch Mar Louis Raphael Sako, have launched appeals to defend "treasures that are worth more than oil".

Today the center is engaged in the production of several copies of the manuscripts, to ensure their conservation. The originals are then returned to the owners, while most of the duplicates in digital format are published online and made available to the local and international public for consultation.

The archive, until 2007 contained within the church of Al-Saa in Mosul, was composed of about 850 manuscripts in Aramaic, Arabic and other languages, along with three centuries old letters and about 50 thousand books. And it is thanks to the work of the Dominican friars that in Mosul, back in 1857, the first press center was built.

"My name - confesses Fr. Najeeb - was on a jihadists blacklist of people to be killed ". He returned to Mosul at the end of last year, to take part in the first post-Daesh era Mass, and found his former church in ruin. The tower that housed the clock was destroyed, the convent turned into a prison and the rooms into centers for the manufacture of artisanal bombs and explosive belts. "I am optimistic - he concludes - the last will be a word of peace, not of violence".

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