As jihadists swept across Iraq three years ago, he rescued a treasure trove of ancient religious manuscripts from near-certain destruction. Father Najeeb Michaeel is now training fellow Iraqis to preserve their heritage.
“My duty is to save our heritage, a significant treasure,” the Dominican friar told AFP in a telephone interview from his office in the city of Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
“We can’t save a tree if we don’t save its roots, and a man without culture is a dead man.”
In August 2014, as the Islamic State (IS) group charged towards Qaraqosh, once Iraq’s largest Christian city, Father Najeeb filled his car with rare manuscripts, 16th century books and irreplaceable records.
He fled towards the relative safety of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
With two other friars from his Dominican order, he also moved the Oriental Manuscript Digitisation Centre (OMDC).
Founded in 1990, the centre works in partnership with Benedictine monks to preserve and restore documents. It also scans damaged manuscripts recovered from churches and villages across northern Iraq.
In all, some 8,000 Chaldean, Syrian, Armenian and Nestorian manuscripts have been digitally copied.
Today, the OMDC has about 10 employees, “displaced people who have turned into professionals” who host researchers from France, Italy or Canada, the friar said.