Via AP — As Islamic State group militants advanced toward a 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-administered Iraqi Kurdistan.
There they remain, hidden by Christians in Kurdistan, in a non-descript apartment in the Kurdish city of Dohuk. The oldest is a copy of the letters of Saint Paul, some 1,100 years old. Most are written in Syriac – a form of the ancient Semitic Aramaic language.
A Bright Spot Among Darkness
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 the city and nearby towns for the Kurdish autonomous region further north. The militants seized churches and monasteries in and around Mosul, removing symbols of Christianity like the cross 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, like 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.
Syriac Orthodox Christians
The Syriac Orthodox Christians of Mar Matti, a monastery that dates back to the 4th century, moved to rescue their library of around 80 manuscripts in August, at the height of the Islamic State group’s blitz, when its fighters were bearing down from Mosul to the north, toward the monastery, 35 kilometers (20 miles) from the city. Their advance was halted by Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who now hold the road leading to the monastery.
The Syriac Orthodox archbishop for northern Iraq, Saliba Shimon, fled his home village outside Mosul, and is one of a handful of monks who continue to live at Mar Matti monastery. There, he teaches Syriac to students. Unfortunately, the rich trove of Syriac tomes is no longer there for him to use. He wanders through the empty library room, showing where the manuscripts used to be.
“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.”
“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 [in Dohuk] until the crisis is over, until the situation is stabilized.”[Read more at AP]