In Iraq, a historic Christian library saved from militants

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By Bram Janssen and Sameer N. Yacoub Associated Press
In this Thursday, April 2, 2015 photo, ancient manuscripts, some of them over a thousand years old, are being held in a bookcase in a location in the city of Dohuk, northern Iraq. As Islamic State group militants advanced toward this monastery in northern Iraq last year, the monks were determined to protect a fragile, vital piece of their heritage: They sent their library of centuries-old handwritten manuscripts to safety. Now the documents are hidden in an apartment in Iraq’s Kurdish areas. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

MAR MATTI MONA­STERY, Iraq — As Islamic State militants advanced toward this monastery perched on a mountain in northern Iraq, the monks rushed to protect a cherished piece of their heritage: Their library of centuries-old Christian manuscripts. Dozens of the handwritten tomes were spirited to safety in nearby Kurdish-ruled areas.

There they remain, hidden in a nondescript apartment in the Kurdish city of Dohuk where Christians who have fled the extremists are watching over them.

The Associated Press was allowed access to the library, a collection of copies of Bibles and biblical commentaries, mostly written in Syriac – a form of the ancient Semitic Aramaic language – and mostly dating back 400 to 500 years. The oldest is a copy of the letters of St. Paul, about 1,100 years old.

Their rescue is a bright spot in the devastating onslaught by the Sunni extremists against Iraq’s people – particularly religious and ethnic minorities – and Iraq’s heritage, as they took over much of northern and western Iraq the past year.

When they captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mo­sul, and other parts of the north last summer, most Chris­tians and other minorities fled for the Kurdish autonomous zone further north. The militants seized churches and monasteries, removing symbols of Christianity and blowing some up. They have also attacked Sunni Muslim shrines they consider idolatrous. In recent months they have accelerated their campaign to destroy more ancient sites, including the 3,000-year-old ruins of Nimrud. They shattered artifacts in Mosul’s museum and burned hundreds of books at Mosul’s library and university, including rare manuscripts.

The Syriac Orthodox Chris­tians of Mar Matti, a monastery that dates to the 4th century, moved to rescue their library of around 80 manuscripts in August, at the height of the Islamic State blitz, when fighters were bearing down from Mosul to the north, toward the monastery, 20 miles from the city. Their advance was halted by Kurdish militia fighters, who now hold the road leading to the monastery.

That was a relief to the monastery’s monks and their community, but they aren’t taking any chances and are leaving the manuscripts where they are until the militants are decisively defeated.

“Thank God they were unable to reach the monastery,” said Raad Abdul-Ahed, a local Christian who helped transport the library. But “we will keep it here until the crisis is over, until the situation is stabilized.”

Abdul-Ahed, who fled his home near Mosul, now lives in the apartment with the manuscripts.

The documents’ absence leaves a void for the handful of monks who continue to live at Mar Matti, along with seven Christian families who have taken refuge there after fleeing the nearby town of Bashiqa, which is held by Islamic State.

The monastery used to get throngs of visitors – nearly 2 million a year, the monks say. Now it’s too dangerous.

The Syriac Orthodox archbishop for northern Iraq, Saliba Shimon, is living at the monastery after fleeing his home village outside Mosul. He says many other Christian manuscripts that were scattered in churches in villages around Mosul are now lost after the militants overran the areas. He and other bishops managed to bring only a few as they fled.

“Each manuscript has its own spiritual value,” he said. “When we keep the manuscript, we are not doing it for the sake of its financial value, but rather because of its spiritual value.”