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Priest on a mission

Under threat from ISIS, Najeeb Michael creates safe havens in Iraq for both ancient tomes and ‘live leather’

Priest on a mission

Najeeb Michael (Lea Crespi/LUZ/Redux)

Courtesy Hill Museum & Manuscript Library/AP

Michael (center) with Columba Stewart and Walid Mourad, looking at a Bible at the Dominican Priory in Qaraqosh, Iraq, in 2012.

Mindy Belz

A hallway at Al-Amal Hope Center.

Mindy Belz

A young Christian girl changing the diaper of a Yazidi orphan at Al-Amal Hope Center.

The now-destroyed Clock Church in Mosul in the 1940s.

‘Bad news,’ is how Najeeb Michael began an email to friends and supporters on the evening of June 10, 2014. “I’m writing you in a critical and apocalyptic situation of violence.”

The Iraqi native reported that most of the inhabitants of Mosul, where the 60-year-old Dominican priest was born, had abandoned their homes and fled to the villages of the vast open Nineveh Plain, “to sleep under the stars with nothing to eat or drink.”

Following two days of attacks by ISIS militants, Michael found the city where he was living, Qaraqosh, overwhelmed with Mosul refugees—thousands and thousands of Christians, Muslims, and Yazidis who lacked food, water, and shelter in temperatures that regularly exceeded 110° F. Those not kidnapped or killed along the way had escaped as families, weary from the 20-mile walk from Mosul. Children arrived wearing pajamas, many of them barefoot, their mothers holding their hands and a few belongings stuffed into shopping bags.

For the millions in Iraq who would face the forced expulsion demanded by ISIS that year, things would only get worse. Before Michael finished writing that June email, he later told me, “ISIS was at our doorstep.” He finished the note abruptly: “They reached Qaraqosh five minutes ago and all of us are threatened. Pray for us. Devastated, I can’t go on.”

Today Christians who lived in areas now controlled by Islamic State, like Michael (his name is sometimes spelled Nageeb Mekhail), have watched two Christmases come and go, away from their homes and churches. Now they celebrate their second Easter still living in temporary housing and worshipping in makeshift facilities. Many face a future as uncertain in 2016 as it was that scorching summer of 2014.

Father Najeeb, as Michael is called in Iraq, isn’t the type to wait for Western mobilization.

A concerted campaign is gaining ground in Washington to declare ISIS actions against Christians and Yazidis a genocide, as prominent Catholic and Protestant leaders petition Secretary of State John Kerry and President Barack Obama. Already the European Union and other nations have taken such action. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz have gone on record saying the mass expulsions and atrocities constitute genocide. Starting Feb. 24 the Knights of Columbus sponsored prime-time television ads urging Americans to sign a petition—spearheading an effort launched by nearly 50 evangelical, Jewish, and Catholic leaders. Within hours of going online the appeal had more than 15,000 signatures.

Father Najeeb, as Michael is called in Iraq, isn’t the type to wait for Western mobilization. By the time I met the Dominican friar in 2015, he was a legend—gathering his own resources to rescue hundreds of priceless Christian manuscripts from the hands of ISIS, ferrying scores of leather-bound editions to safety in northern Iraq and beyond, then turning his attention to what he calls the “live leather,” the people made homeless by ISIS.

Michael was born in Mosul to Chaldean Christian parents, with a heritage in the church stretching back to the earliest Christian centuries. He earned his Ph.D. in Switzerland studying Yazidi writings, discovering along the way that Chaldean monks in Iraq had translated the first written forms of Yazidi teaching into Syriac, or Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. His interest in preserving ancient manuscripts never wavered, a passion that was shared by all the Dominicans in Iraq.

The Dominican Order, the Roman Catholic order of clergy founded in France, first arrived in Iraq in 1790. In 1860 Dominicans brought in the country’s first modern printing press. In addition to preserving centuries of hand-copied texts, the Dominicans printed hundreds of Scriptures and other religious books, including textbooks in Arabic, and educational works of all kinds.

‘Human lives are first, but you cannot protect the tree without the roots. The roots are our history, our heritage.’ —Najeeb Michael

The Dominican Clock Church in Mosul, a landmark site built in 1872, was at the heart of this work. Residents could see the church above the city’s low skyline for miles around. They set their watches by the four-sided clock, pausing as they passed beneath it, marking the hours by hearing its brass bell across the city.

By the start of the Iraq War, Michael’s Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts, an operation he founded, was more than a decade old. Working with scholars in France and the United States, he began painstakingly digitizing and preserving Iraq’s ancient church documents.

At the height of Islamic insurgency in 2007, terrorists set off a bomb at the entrance to the Clock Church, an explosion that ripped through the doors and windows of the chapel where the priests were holding evening prayer. No one was hurt in the blast, but for Michael it put into overdrive his quest to save the artifacts. The church and its monastery and extensive library were at risk.

Michael began to load a hired car with rare books and manuscripts every evening at sunset. The car would then take the documents to the Dominican mission in Qaraqosh, a safer city 20 miles east across Nineveh Plain. Eventually Michael secreted away 55,000 volumes in a monastery there. Besides ancient Scripture and church writings, the collection included dated works on science, astronomy, and medicine. “These were very valuable manuscripts and printed books,” he told me. “They exist nowhere else.”

Working with a small team of priests and university students who served as apprentices, Michael in 2007 picked up the effort’s pace, sending digital files to Minnesota for safekeeping, where most are stored at the manuscript library of Saint John’s University. Some digitized files also went to the National Archives in Paris.

The ISIS offensive that prompted Michael’s desperate June email put the Dominican archives in jeopardy again. ISIS fought Kurdish forces in Qaraqosh for weeks. Michael’s roving library took flight again before militants overtook the city in August. This time Father Najeeb hired a large truck to carry books and manuscripts from Qaraqosh to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.

A displaced man himself, Michael joined several Dominican brothers from Mosul and Qaraqosh in purchasing a four-room house in Erbil. By 2015 he had stored the physical remains of the vast Clock Church collection there, in territory now under protection from Kurdish forces and U.S. warplanes, 25 miles from the front lines with ISIS.

The friar told me he has obsessed over care of this rare collection of manuscripts, but at the same time he grew more burdened to preserve the “live leather,” the Iraqi Christian people. “Human lives are first,” he said, “but you cannot protect the tree without the roots. The roots are our history, our heritage.” Michael wanted to save both.

That’s how Michael ended up at an unfinished hotel on the outskirts of Erbil near a predominantly Christian suburb called Ankawa. He persuaded the building’s owners to let the Dominicans turn the construction site into emergency housing. By the time I visited it in early 2015, Michael had changed its name to Al-Amal Hope Center. He opened another site in an abandoned four-story building in Erbil, calling it Vine.

With support from Dominicans in Europe and the United States, Michael hired a contractor to build out the construction sites, creating cement-block interior walls for two-room living units with windows and doors. Al-Amal was wired for electricity but had no running water. Trucks deliver water in tanks each week, and young boys haul it to upper floors in jerricans. Shared toilets and washing sinks are at the end of each floor, and women cook over small propane-fed burners in the wide hallways.

Christians and Yazidis live together at both sites—about 165 families (750 people) at Al-Amal and 80 families at Vine. On average there are five to six persons per family, and two families often occupy one two-room unit.

The trauma lives on in these new dwellings. When they first arrived, children made crayon drawings showing beheadings and rivers of blood, and they became frightened whenever a man with a beard approached.

Yet Yazidis live alongside Christians from different parts of Iraq. Women console one another in the cement block hallways while they pat fat wads of dough into flatbread.

When I visited Al-Amal in 2015, I watched a young girl from a Christian family change the diaper of an orphaned Yazidi boy. Sara, a young Christian mother of three from Qaraqosh whose husband had been kidnapped, told me she was pregnant when she arrived. Other women in the hotel, all once strangers, helped her through delivery and caring for her children.

Samah Anwar, a 23-year-old Yazidi woman who was a medical student in Mosul until the ISIS attack, teaches English to her neighbors at Al-Amal, and says she is improving her own skills by speaking English to visitors.

“Now I’m sitting in a building with everything we need in it,” Anwar told me cheerfully. “It’s a real home. And Father Najeeb taught us to be hopeful and patient, even though we don’t know what the future is hiding for us.”

—Mindy Belz is the author of They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East (Tyndale, 2016), due out next month and available for pre-ordering. Some of this material appears in the book.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy is senior editor of WORLD Magazine and the author of They Say We Are Infidels. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.