Iraqi archbishop who preserves historic manuscripts nominated for Sakharov Prize

29980989692 8a808d2b69 c Then-Fr. Najeeb Michaeel at a "Global Dialogue" event in Buenos Aires, Oct. 3, 2016. | Silvina Frydlewsky / Ministerio de Cultura de la Nación via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul has been nominated for the Sakharov Prize for his work to preserve hundreds of historic manuscripts from destruction by the Islamic State in 2014.

Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel, a Dominican, has worked since at least 1990 to preserve manuscripts and other historic documents from the Mosul area.

The Sakharov Prize is awarded by the European Parliament to those dedicated to the defense of human rights and freedom of thought.

The other nominees this year are the democratic opposition in Belarus; environmental activists in Honduras; and a group of LGBTI activists in Poland.

The prize winner will be announced Oct. 22.

Archbishop Najeeb was born in Mosul in 1955. He took simple vows with the Dominican order in 1981, and was ordained a priest in 1987.

The next year he became archivist of the Dominican convent in Mosul, and in 1990 he founded the Center for the Digitization of Eastern Manuscripts.

In 2018 he was confirmed as Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, and he was consecrated a bishop and installed in January 2019.

He spoke to CNA about his work in 2017: "First, we save them (the manuscripts) physically, materially. We bring them to safety and bring them with us at the peril of our lives, of course. But, we also electronically copy them and number them."

"I did not save this history just because I am a Christian. I saved this because I am human and everything that is human interests me, like the lives of human beings and of a human being become much more valuable when he has roots."

Since 2007 Archbishop Najeeb and those who help him have moved and protected manuscripts from likely destruction at the hands of Islamist extremists. So far, the group has digitally preserved more than 8,000 previously unpublished manuscripts, dating from the 10th to the 19th centuries.

"Culture and civilization were born here and today it is a bath of blood and the destruction is almost complete and total, but even with all of this we keep the hope for a better future," Archbishop Najeeb said.

Since 1750 the many manuscripts had been kept in the library of the Dominican monastery in Mosul. They were moved from the monastery starting in 2007, amid the backdrop of increased violence against Christians and other minorities at the hands of extremist groups.

Because of the violence, which included the killing of priests, for safety the Dominican brothers began quietly to move from their church. They continued to say Mass and the sacraments, but were physically living more than 18 miles away in Bakhdida.

Not to draw attention to themselves they dressed in civilian clothes and came and went discretely to celebrate Mass in caves, "like the first Christians did in the catacombs at the beginning of the Christian era," Archbishop Najeeb said.

It was during those next few years that the brothers began to bring progressively the manuscripts out of the convent in Mosul.

Then, in 2014, the Islamic State arrived in Mosul. Under threat of death unless they converted to Islam, Christians fled the city. Stopped at checkpoints on the roads, Islamic State took everything, so they were forced to leave with only the clothes they were wearing.

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Archbishop Najeeb and his brothers made it safely past the checkpoints. Then, just ten days before Islamic State invaded Bakhdida, he rescued many of the manuscripts again, this time bringing them to Erbil, where they have remained.

The documents include more than 25 subjects, including theology, philosophy, astronomy, medicine, history, and geography, many of which date back "to the 10th, 11th, and 12th century in Aramaic," Archbishop Najeeb said.

They also have documents in Syriac, Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Hebrew, Persian, and more: "All of this makes up our collection and heritage, not only Christian but also in the international communion for the whole of humanity," he explained.

Archbishop Najeeb noted that preserving the manuscripts is far more important than merely having a record of history and an archive of historical objects, but something vital for the education of future generations as well.

"In fact, the manuscripts and the archives of these ancient document make up our history and are our roots. We cannot save a tree without saving its roots. The two can bear fruit," he said.

"So, it is important, all of these archives. This history is a part of our collective archives, our past, our history. And these we absolutely had to save, as our children."

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