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On the Run from the Islamic State, Iraqi Christians Are Trying to Save Their Heritage

The number of Christians in Iraq is falling fast. Two tough priests are trying to save their heritage — with no love lost for Muslims.
Il monastero di S. Elijah a Mosul, Iraq (Foto via Wikimedia Commons)

The international community is struggling to come up with a strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) — but on the ground in northern Iraq, a Roman Catholic priest has found his own way to fight the jihadists.

Father Gabriel Tooma is not going after them with weapons. He is not involved with any of the several Christian militias that have taken it upon themselves, in Iraq and neighboring Syria, to defend their villages against IS onslaught. What he is doing, he says, is even more important to the Christian minority's fate in northern Iraq: He is rounding up ancient manuscripts and relics and hiding them in secure locations around Kurdistan, hoping to save them from the iconoclastic fury of the terror insurgency.


"If Daesh burns down a church we can rebuild it, but the manuscripts are our history. They trace back our roots, they are part of our civilization," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. "If they get destroyed, then we are lost, and our culture will be forgotten."

The 55-year old priest, a Jesuit-like Pope Francis, spoke during a meeting late last year at a monastery in al Qosh, in the Nineveh Plain.

His words took on a new, urgent meaning on Wednesday, when news broke that IS fighters had done exactly what he had said. The extremist militants had razed the oldest Christian church in Iraq, the 1,400-year old St. Elijah Monastery in Mosul, about 30 miles (50 km) from al Qosh.

Related: The Western Coalition Is Now Talking About How to Accelerate The Campaign Against Islamic State

In the face of this threat, Father Gabriel is trying to save what he can, including manuscripts dating back as far as the 11th Century. They are mainly liturgical books, but there are also Old Testament stories, books on medicine, and miniatures drawn by monks. "These books have an inestimable value," he said. He has been at work for four years on scanning and saving them in digital format, with the help of the Italian NGO Un Ponte Per and funds from the Italian Episcopal Conference.

The manuscripts are delicate objects, handled carefully by an Italian art restorer, Irene Zanella, who trains Iraqis on how preserve ancient books from her base in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan. Zanella and her staff first dust the books with a soft brush, then each page is photographed, rather than scanned. "This technique avoids squashing the pages and preserves the pages and the ink," she said. Her work is part of a larger project to save the cultural heritage of Iraq, started in 2004 in Baghdad and then expanded throughout the country, as it plunged into a civil war that often overlaps with religious and sectarian divisions.


Iraq has a Shiite Muslim majority, now in power, and a Sunni minority that was in charge until the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime. A small Christian minority, about three percent of the population, is made up mostly of Chaldean Catholics like Father Gabriel.

Along with the Yazidis, who practice a pre-Islamic religion and are also targeted by IS, the Christian heritage is in grave danger in Iraq. But it has been for years, since well before IS began its campaign of cleansing from the territory it controls anybody who is not a Sunni Muslim in 2014.

In 2006, a wave of terrorist attacks hit the Iraqi Christian community. At least three archbishops and dozens of priests were killed; hundreds of the faithful died in church bombings. As a result, the Jesuits ordered Father Gabriel, and eight other priests, to leave Baghdad immediately. "We left just one person behind to guard the monastery of St. Anthony, and I was told to go to al Qosh," he said.

Father Gabriel was also told to take with him the most ancient and precious manuscripts, which had been in the monastery for centuries. But he was afraid the Iraqi Army would confiscate the books at checkpoints and try to sell them. So he decided to smuggle them: "We stored the manuscripts in boxes, covered by blankets. We hoped for the best." He traveled more than 300 miles (500 km) in a four-vehicle convoy, passing by his count through 63 checkpoints. "They never stopped us," he said. "We arrived safely in al Qosh."


A view of al Qosh, overlooking the Nineveh plain, in northern Iraq. Photo by Benedetta Argentieri / VICE News 

That adventurous move, it turned out, bought Father Gabriel and his books — and many Iraqi Christians — just a few years of safety.

On August 6, 2014, IS launched a major operation in the Nineveh plain, taking most of it in just a few days. It encountered no resistance from the Iraqi security forces, which fled before the militants' advance. As the militants approached al Qosh, Christians there panicked.

"As soon as we heard they were coming, I thought everything was lost. So I encouraged everybody from the village to flee. We knew what happened to the Yazidis and didn't want to meet the same fate," said Father Gabriel, referring to the religious minority's near-extermination by the Islamic State just a few months earlier. "I took the most important manuscripts with me and hoped for the best."

But al Qosh was spared. The IS advance stopped a few kilometers away. Father Gabriel went back to retrieve what he had left behind —1,000 manuscripts, which he scattered in remote locations in Kurdistan, the autonomous region of Iraq. "I will not say where they are, it's not safe. Just I and another priest know where they are," he said, smoking a thin cigarette, a habit he picked up in Italy, where he lived for almost ten years while in training for the priesthood. The waves of violence he experienced since Saddam's fall, he said, made him extremely wary of strangers.

Al Qosh, under the gaze of an eighth-century monastery built on the mountain overlooking the town, is the last remaining Christian village in the whole plain of Nineveh, but its situation is precarious. The front line in the battle with IS is just six miles (10 km) away, and Mosul, the largest Iraqi city occupied by the extremists, is 28 miles (50 km).


The 7,000 people of al Qosh are protected by both the Kurdish peshmerga army and a militia of Assyrian Christians, but their de facto leader is the local priest — Father Gabriel himself, who also manages a school and the local orphanage.

It is he who decides who can and can not live in the town. Yazidis on the run from IS are welcome, he said, and so are other refugees, but on one condition: They must not be Muslim. The Christian mandate to help one's neighbor does not extend to Muslims in al Qosh. "They can go to many other villages around here, where there are no Christians," Father Gabriel said. "Al Qosh is the last place in the area where we can live our faith in peace. And many of them are also ISIS [an alternative acronym for IS] collaborators. I don't want them here."

He does, in fact, see himself as a sort of religious warrior, fighting to save Iraqi Christians with a righteous zeal. "There was a Christian boy who lost his parents in Baghdad, and the local mosque wanted to raise him," he said. "I couldn't allow that." So he organized a convoy to get him and bring him to al Qosh, he said, so that the boy would not be raised as a Muslim. The other 34 children at the orphanage have similar stories. Most of them lost their parents in the conflict; in some cases, families lost everything and left them with the priest, so they could eat and have a roof on their head.

Father Gabriel Tooma with some of the children in the al Qosh orphanage. Photo by Benedetta Argentieri / VICE News

He is not the only Christian religious figure in the area with such harsh views of Muslims. "I can tell you Islam doesn't have peaceful messages," said Friar Najeeb Michaeel, a 50-year old Dominican monk in Erbil, who fled the IS advance on the town of Qaraqosh, about 18 miles (30 km) from Mosul. His views of Islam may have been shaped by the 1996 killing in Algeria by Islamist militants of the priest who he said had ordained him, French Archbishop Pierre Claverie.


He, too, is involved in saving ancient manuscripts, which he began working to preserve at his first post in a monastery in Mosul in the 1980s. In 2007, he got death threats from groups affiliated with al Qaeda in Iraq, and moved to Qaraqosh, with some of the ancient books.

On August 7, 2014, he had to escape again. IS was coming. "It was 5.30am when I saw Daesh coming with their cars and the black flags waving. They were trying to cut in front of us to kill men and kidnap women. I gave everybody the last rites, I thought it was finished for us," he recalled. Instead, the people fleeing Qaraqosh found a checkpoint on the road to Kurdistan open, and got through — but had to leave their vehicles behind.

"Thousands of people were trying to flee. We had several manuscripts in the cars with us. So I asked everybody, young and old, to carry at least ten at a time to the other side of the border. We had to make several trips, but we made it." Qaraqosh remains in IS hands.

One of the manuscripts saved by Friar Najeeb Michaeel. Photo by Benedetta Argentieri / VICE News

Now his collection includes over 5,000 manuscripts and scrolls, he said, but he was also able to save paintings, statues and relics. Like Father Gabriel, he keeps them hidden in a secret place. "What they try to destroy we protect. This is how we can really defeat IS," he said.

In Erbil, protected by the Kurdish peshmerga, he bought a building with the help of American Benedictine monks and private donations. About 60 families from Qaraqosh live there, but most of them are trying to leave the country and head for Europe.


"The situation is very hard. Most of these families were middle class, they had everything they needed, but now they have nothing and they can't really accept this," he said, describing a massive exodus of Christian families trying to get to Europe.

According to Emily Fuentes, coordinator for Open Doors, an American NGO focusing on persecuted Christians around the world, the Iraqi Christian community has shrunk to 200,000, compared to a million people in 2003.

"The numbers are diminishing daily. More and more people are trying to leave," she said. Most of the remaining community found shelter in Kurdistan, but adapting to life there its very difficult. "It is a completely different culture, the language is different. Technically they are still [in Iraq], but it almost feels like a different country."

Even Father Gabriel doubts there will ever be peace for Iraq's Christians. "I have no idea what will happen to us. The future is gloomy. Take what happened in Paris, those terrorist attacks. I am afraid to say this is just the start," he said, in a phone conversation after VICE News visited him in al Qosh. But he is hanging on to hope: "We will continue to oppose terrorism, in our own way."

Follow Benedetta Argentieri on Twitter: @Benargentieri

Watch the VICE News documentary, Reclaiming Sinjar: Pushing Back the Islamic State: