Friar Trains Iraqis to Preserve 'Treasures'

Father Najeeb Michaeel works on an old manuscript at the Oriental Manuscript Digitisation Center (CNDO) in Arbil. SAFIN HAMED / AFP
Father Najeeb Michaeel works on an old manuscript at the Oriental Manuscript Digitisation Center (CNDO) in Arbil. SAFIN HAMED / AFP
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Friar Trains Iraqis to Preserve 'Treasures'

Father Najeeb Michaeel works on an old manuscript at the Oriental Manuscript Digitisation Center (CNDO) in Arbil. SAFIN HAMED / AFP
Father Najeeb Michaeel works on an old manuscript at the Oriental Manuscript Digitisation Center (CNDO) in Arbil. SAFIN HAMED / AFP

As militants 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.

In August 2014, as ISIS 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 Digitization Center (OMDC).

"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."

Founded in 1990, OMDC 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.

The new recruits are all academics who lost their jobs after fleeing their homes during the militant takeover.

"They are working for the future and they know it. They put their whole heart into it," said Father Najeeb, whose team includes Christians and Muslims.

"I've trained four or five different teams," said Father Najeeb, explaining that as Iraqi troops advanced against ISIS, many trainees returned home, forcing him to take on fresh recruits.

The center now makes several copies of each document to guarantee its preservation. Originals are returned to the owners, one copy is kept on file and another posted on its online digital database.

Until 2007, these documents were kept in the convent of Al-Saa church, also known as Our Lady of the Hour, in the city of Mosul, which became the major battleground of Iraq's war against ISIS.

The archives contain nearly 850 ancient manuscripts in Aramaic, Arabic and other languages, letters dating back three centuries and some 50,000 books.

Al-Saa church takes its name from its clock, which was a gift from France in 1880, given to the Dominicans in recognition of their social and cultural work.

The Dominican order had opened 25 schools across Mosul and its surrounding province, and -- on the backs of camels trekking across the desert -- brought Iraq its first printing house in 1857.

But attacks against churches in Mosul were on the rise since 2004. At least five priests and a bishop have been murdered.

"I was on the list of religious figures to kill," said Father Najeeb. 

In 2007, he moved the archives to Qaraqosh, some 30 kilometers away.

Thanks to "a premonition" in late July 2014, the Dominicans relocated the archives once again, this time to Iraqi Kurdistan.

When ISIS pushed into the Christian city less than two weeks later, the friars filled their cars with the remaining documents and followed suit. 

"As soon as I saw anyone with their hands empty, I handed them some of the cultural treasures and asked them to return them once they entered Kurdistan," said the friar. "I got everything back."

When he returned to Mosul last year to attend the first post-ISIS Christmas mass, Friar Najeeb found his church in ruins.

The tower that housed the clock had vanished, the convent had been converted into a jail, rooms transformed into workshops for bombs and explosive belts, and gallows had replaced the church altar.

But Father Najeeb, who plays organ and electric guitar, remains hopeful. "I'm optimistic. The last word will be one of peace, not the sword," he said.



Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Iraq Counts Cost of Stray Bullets Fired in Anger or Joy 

The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)
The father holds up the x-ray of Muhammad Akram, 4-years-old, who was injured by a random gunshot in his home in a village in the Yusufiya not far from Baghdad on May 20, 2024. (AFP)

At weddings, football matches and other special events, some Iraqi men like to fire salvos of celebratory gunfire into the sky, worrying little about where the bullets might fall.

For some Iraqis, the tradition has been devastating, as have random bullets from sporadic gun battles in a society still awash with weapons after decades of war and turmoil.

Baghdad mother Randa Ahmad was busy with chores when a loud bang startled her. Alarmed, she hurried to the living room to find her four-year-old son Mohamed bleeding on the floor.

"A stray bullet hit him in the head," the 30-year-old said weeks later, her child sitting timidly by her side in their suburban house.

The bullet "came out of nowhere", said Ahmad, who doesn't know who fired it or why.

Her child now suffers from severe headaches and tires easily, but doctors say surgery to remove the bullet is too risky.

"If the bullet moves," Ahmad said, "it could cause paralysis."

Celebratory gunfire and gun battles sometimes sparked by minor feuds are a daily occurrence in Iraq, where firearms possession remains widespread despite a period of relative calm.

Iraq, a country of 43 million, endured wars under ruler dictator Saddam Hussein, the 2003 US-led invasion, and the sectarian conflict and extremist insurgencies that followed.

During the years of bloody turmoil, all types of weapons flooded into the country and have often been used in tribal disputes and political score-settling.

Many households claim to own firearms for protection.

As of 2017, some 7.6 million arms -- handguns, rifles and shotguns -- were held by civilians in Iraq, says monitoring group the Small Arms Survey, which believes the number has since risen.

- 'Bullet fell from the sky' -

Saad Abbas was in his garden in Baghdad when he was jolted by a sharp, searing pain in his shoulder.

"At first, I thought someone had hit me with a stone," the 59-year-old said. Then he realized that a "bullet fell from the sky" and hit him.

Months later, he remains mostly bedridden, the projectile still lodged in his shoulder after doctors advised against surgery because of a pre-existing medical condition.

"I can't raise my hand," he said. "It hurts. I can't even remove my bed cover."

Abbas voiced fury at those who fire off celebratory rounds when "a football team wins, during a wedding or an engagement party".

"Where do the bullets go?" he asked. "They fall on people!"

He decried the rampant gun ownership and said that "weapons should be exclusively in the hands of the state".

Iraqi law punishes illegal firearms possession with up to one year in prison, but authorities announced plans last year to tighten controls.

Security forces have urged civilians to register their guns in 697 centers, allowing each family to possess just one light weapon for "protection", said interior ministry spokesman Miqdad Miri.

The government also recently started offering civilians up to $4,000 to buy their weapons.

But Miri acknowledged that in tribal and rural areas, many people "consider weapons a part of their identity".

In recent years, their collections have been swelled by the "huge quantities" of firearms left behind by the Iraqi army during the US-led invasion, he said.

During the tumultuous years since, weak border controls and the emergence of extremists allowed arms trafficking to thrive.

- 'Attached to their weapons' -

"Our main problem is not small arms but medium and large weapons," Miri said, referring to military-issue assault rifles and other powerful guns.

Security expert Ahmed el-Sharifi also said that "civilians are attached to their weapons" but that even harder to control are the arsenals of "armed political groups and tribes... This is the most dangerous."

Despite the state's efforts to control the gun scourge, the problem frequently makes headlines.

Earlier this year, a video went viral showing armed clashes between relatives in a busy market in eastern Baghdad that left one person dead.

In March, a senior intelligence officer was shot dead when he tried to resolve a tribal dispute.

And in April, celebratory gunfire at a wedding took the life of the groom in the northern city of Mosul.

Last year, another man, Ahmed Hussein, 30, said he was hit in the leg, presumably also by a bullet fired at a wedding.

He said he had just gone for a nap when he was startled by gunfire and then felt a sharp pain.

"I fell out of bed and looked at my leg to find it bleeding," Hussein said.

He too decried how even a simple argument "between children or at a football game" can quickly lead to someone squeezing a trigger, with those paying the price often "innocent bystanders".