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An archbishop blesses a man with his golden cross

Human rights

Iraqi archbishop who helped save ancient manuscripts from ISIS nominated for EU award

When ISIS took over his city, Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel Moussa knew he had to jump into action to save hundreds of ancient manuscripts. The risky effort was dangerous but ultimately successful. Now, he has been nominated for a prestigious award by the European Union.

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The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Najib Michaeel Moussa (left) blesses a man with his golden cross, during his ordination ceremony at St. Paul's Cathedral in the eastern part of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, Jan. 25, 2019.
 

Credit:

Zaid Al-Obeidi/AFP via Getty Images

The European Parliament has nominated Iraqi Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel Moussa for its prestigious Sakharov Prize, awarded every year to recognize individuals and organizations that defend human rights. 

The announcement came earlier this month and the European Parliament said it is nominating the Catholic Chaldean Archbishop because he "ensured the evacuation of Christians, Syriacs and Chaldeans to Iraqi Kurdistan and safeguarded more than 800 historic manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th century." 

The night of Aug. 6, 2014, is one the archbishop will never forget.

He even has a name for it: the "black night."

He calls it that because it was the most harrowing experience of his life, he told The World in an interview from his home in northern Iraq.

A few days prior, he had learned that ISIS militants were about to take over his city of Qaraqosh, located about 20 miles southeast of Mosul. That meant one thing: It was time to leave.

Related: US Embassy closure in Iraq would hand Tehran a 'strategic victory'

“At midnight, I started to leave with many thousands of families. [They were] crying, shouting and most of them had no cars,” he recalled.

Qaraqosh residents had reason to fear. ISIS is a Sunni extremist group that asserts that non-believers of Sunni Islam deserve to be killed and that people of other monotheistic faiths, like Christianity, are inferior. Christians and other minority groups suffered a lot during ISIS' rule in Iraq and Syria.

At the time, Qaraqosh was home to Iraq’s largest Christian communities. The Christians that remained were reportedly given an ultimatum: pay a special tax for non-believers, leave, or be killed. Thousands of Christians and other minorities fled Qaraqosh overnight. 

“I feel that something dangerous [was about to] happen against our life and against our heritage,” Moussa recalled.

Related: New rail service in Iraq through former ISIS territory

A history of displacement

This wasn’t the first time Moussa was being forced to leave his home. He said the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 unleashed a wave of attacks against minorities across the country. His church was targeted.

“Fanatic groups killed five priests and one bishop,” he said. “This is just in Mosul.”

At one point, he said, he found out his name was on a hit list.

A prominent religious leader in his community, Moussa was in charge of thousands of ancient manuscripts. They're handwritten texts from the 12th and 13th centuries, covering a wide range of subjects like theology, philosophy, astrology, astronomy and medicine.

In 2007, Moussa decided it was no longer safe to stay in Mosul. But if he was leaving, he said, he was taking the documents with him. Over several clandestine trips, he moved the documents to Qaraqosh. 

Then, on that night in August 2014, he found himself doing the same thing all over again.

“We had two cars. And when we [found out that] many people were without a car and they want to save their lives, we asked them to come in our car and [sit] on the heritage.”

Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel Moussa 

“We put what we had in the cars,” he said. “We had two cars. And when we [found out that] many people were without a car and they want to save their lives, we asked them to come in our car and [sit] on the heritage.”

They loaded up as many people as they could. Men, women, children squeezed together on top of cardboard boxes full of fragile, ancient manuscripts.

“We said we will live together or we will die together,” Moussa said.

Related: Iraqi security expert's assassination in Baghdad has left many in shock

Fleeing ISIS

The cars sped off into the darkness. They were headed to the Kurdish region of Iraq, to safety.

“At 5:30 a.m. a young girl started saying, ‘Father, Father, look at your right,’" Moussa recalled. “And I see many cars with the black and white ISIS flags. They are ready to attack us.”

That’s it, he thought. They were about to be ambushed.

“I started to pray. I asked God to give me 10 hands or 10 legs to save [the people and the manuscripts].”

Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel Moussa 

“I started to pray. I asked God to give me 10 hands or 10 legs to save [the people and the manuscripts].” 

Moussa remembers spotting the Kurdish security forces in the distance. He said they opened fire on the ISIS convoy and managed to hold them back while the civilians got through the checkpoints.

He and the others eventually made it to safety. 

A trail of death and destruction 

They were lucky, says Reine Hanna, director of the Assyrian Policy Institute, a US-based nonprofit that advocates for the rights of minorities in the Middle East.

“There was a smaller number of Christians or Assyrians that lived under ISIS rule. ... and it was a very traumatic experience, very scary and unknown on a day-to-day basis.”

Reine Hanna, director, Assyrian Policy Institute 

“There was a smaller number of Christians or Assyrians that lived under ISIS rule,” she said, “and these were more elderly, members of the community who were not able to travel. And [...] it was a very traumatic experience, very scary and unknown on a day-to-day basis.”

Human rights groups have documented ISIS mass killings of not just Sunni Iraqis but minorities as well. They have described what happened to the Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority group, for example, as genocide.

ISIS also pillaged and destroyed heritage sites. For a while, it was making money off of selling historic artifacts on international black markets.

The documents that Moussa helped save have now been digitized and exhibited in France and Italy.

The winner of the 2020 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought is handed out each year to individuals and organizations that “defend human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The winner will be announced in December and is rewarded with €50,000 (about $60,000).

The archbishop said the manuscripts are currently in Iraq and he plans to keep it that way.

He dedicated his nomination to the Iraqi people.

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