IRBIL, IRAQ —
Father Najeeb Michael saved as many people as he could.
Right before Islamic State stormed his village, he packed as many people as possible into his car and fled to Irbil in the dead of night.
“It is not easy to describe this criminal day, this black day which Daesh occupied Mosul and around Mosul,” Father Najeeb told VOA, using a local term for the extremist group.
“It was the night of August 6, 2014, a very dangerous and sad day and night when many thousands of people left Mosul and also Qaraqosh,” he recalled.
Qaraqosh is an ancient Assyrian Christian town southeast of Mosul.
“This night I left Qaraqosh just two hours before Daesh came and occupied Qaraqosh, and I bring with me thousands of manuscripts in my cars,” he said.
The manuscripts include parchments that date back more than 1,000 years, and historical documents related to astrology, theology and philosophy.
Mike Albin, a U.S.-based Arab world specialist formerly with the Library of Congress, told VOA the manuscripts are irreplaceable.
“The manuscripts rescued by Father Najeeb are as important for the history of Iraq’s culture as any museum object or archeological site,” Albin said.
“His heroism in rescuing the manuscripts and his organizational skill in preserving them are a priceless contribution to the preservation of mankind’s cultural heritage," he said of Father Najeeb.
Some of the documents now are tucked away inside a metal filing cabinet in the middle of a rundown building in central Irbil, kept in gray boxes tied in cream-colored ribbons.
Father Najeeb said he managed to sneak many pieces, including paintings, out of Qaraqosh and surrounding churches 10 days before the extremists stormed in.
“I felt we were in a dangerous situation and IS will attack us, that’s why...I chose a big truck and put everything inside, many thousands of manuscripts, and also many thousands of documentation and archiving and precious things, and I take it out of danger.”
Opposite the file cabinet, Father Najeeb has set up a camera above a small table, where he and a number of students are painstakingly photographing every page of every manuscript.
By digitizing these historical pages, Father Najeeb hopes he will forever preserve Iraq’s Christian history.