Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq's Christian History : Parallels Fleeing ISIS, an order of Dominican monks had to leave much behind. But when Father Najeeb Michaeel helped the Christian community escape, he took one thing with him: a collection of manuscripts.
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Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq's Christian History

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Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq's Christian History

Piece By Piece, Monks Scramble To Preserve Iraq's Christian History

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The group that called itself the Islamic State has forced Christians in northwestern Iraq to flee. And as they leave their homes behind, an ancient heritage is at risk. As NPR's Alice Fordham reports, some Christians decided there was one thing they could save - their library.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, I meet two monks. Father Najeeb Mikhael is a beaming Iraqi in white robes. In black vestments is Father Colomba Stewart - a Texan, tall, spare and pale. They are on a rescue mission.

FATHER NAJEEB MIKHAEL: There's a big collection of our archive and manuscripts there. And there are old books.

FORDHAM: Mikhael has taken me to a house where he's stashed a substantial part of what remains of the Christian libraries of Iraq.

FORDHAM: OK. So tell me what I'm seeing. Wow.

MIKHAEL: This is a New Testament - altogether Saint Mark, Matthew and Luke and Jean here. And as you see, in many colors also here.

FORDHAM: So it's an illuminated Gospels.

MIKHAEL: Exactly.

FORDHAM: 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 1800's.

MIKHAEL: And we start printing in six to seven different languages, as Arabic, Chaldean, Syriac, Turkish also Latin, French.

FORDHAM: As an Islamist insurgency roiled Mosul in 2008, they smuggled their library out bit by bit to the Christian village of Qaraqosh. And last summer when ISIS was inching closer, Mikhael took action.

MIKHAEL: I prepare everything, and take a very big truck and put all this collection. At 5 a.m., I came with a truck. We passed the three checkpoints without any problem. I think Virgin Mary have her hand to protect us. (Laughter).

FORDHAM: In fact, in Qaraqosh, he'd been working on a digitizing project headed by Stewart’s Hill Museum and Manuscript Library based in Minnesota. He'd gathered manuscripts from all around Iraq and was photographing them. Stewart studies Syriac, a variant of the Aramaic language from the time of Jesus. He shows me a sheaf of yellowed handwritten pages that have lost their binding.

FATHER COLOMBA STEWART: I'm not sure exactly what this is because we're missing the first part, but it looks like a liturgical manuscript. (Reading in a foreign language).

FORDHAM: They explain there's actually two dialects - Western Syriac and Eastern Syriac. The Iraqi monk, Mikhael, sings the old prayer, the "Our Father," to demonstrate.

MIKHAEL: (Singing in foreign language).

FORDHAM: That's the Western version.

MIKHAEL: (Singing in foreign language).

FORDHAM: And that's the Eastern one. Stewart needs the manuscripts to study the way prayers shift across dialects.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN SINGING)

FORDHAM: Every night, many displaced Christian families living in an unfinished building in Erbil sing the old prayers together, and hope they'll go home. In private, the monks say they think this upheaval will drive the last of Iraq's Christians out. They're trying to document the heritage before all this disappears. Alice Fordham, NPR News.

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