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Christians in the Muslim World

The Benedictines and the new barbarians

With ISIS advancing in Iraq and Syria, attention must first be paid to the defence of human life and the care of refugees. But the new barbarians do not confine themselves to killing people, but also wish to cancel out the memory of those who have lived in the territories which they now occupy by destroying their ancient cultural heritage.

While the Islamic State is imposing its monochrome order on Mosul, there are many struggling to preserve the multiple shades to be found in the history of the Iraqi city. Just a short distance from Niniveh, Mosul and the surrounding plain were a cultural centre of notable significance in medieval Islam. But, above all, it is in this region that the Syriac language and culture, the expression of that Aramaic world in which Christianity began its diffusion, have survived over the centuries: an extraordinary heritage of monasteries and churches, inscriptions and archives which the Islamic State is now eager to destroy. But for part of that heritage the militant Islamists arrived too late. The Benedictines got there before them.



The story begins in Italy at Montecassino, during World War Two. The monastery and its collections were destroyed by ferocious bombing raids. Reflecting on what had happened, several American Benedictines in 1965 launched a worldwide project to photograph manuscripts and archives in the event of a new devastating war. From Western Europe, the initiative, known as HHML, grew and spread gradually to other parts of the world: Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, Mali and the Middle East. In 2009 HMML came to Iraq, through the intermediary of the Dominican Prior in Mosul, P. Najeeb Mikhael. A first series of digitizations had been completed before the arrival of ISIS, and during the summer P. Najeeb and his team, who in the meantime had left for Qaraqosh, succeeded in carrying to safety in Kurdistan the manuscripts and archives of the Dominican Priory and those of the Chaldean Patriarchate in Baghdad.



But behind the ISIS lines there is still an impressive heritage. And it is particularly moving to scroll online through the 122 manuscripts from the Syrian-Catholic church of St Thomas at Mosul, catalogued and posted only a few days ago by the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts. The idea goes back to the librarian of the church, P. Pius Alfaz, who saw the storm approaching five years ago. They are all documents that probably no longer exist today and precisely for this reason their value is immense.



The prime defenders of this heritage under threat are the Syrians themselves, a religious community that was the victim of a genocide during World War One instigated by the Ottoman Empire. Decade after decade many members of this minority became part of an impressive diaspora, mostly to North America and Switzerland, without forgetting its roots. Georges Kiraz, who was born in Bethlehem and emigrated to Los Angeles in 80s, is a typical example of the diaspora. A software engineer, he has added the Syriac alphabet to Unicode and created four appropriate fonts. He is also the founder of Gorgias Press based in New Jersey, which is dedicated to disseminating knowledge of the Syriac and Oriental Christian heritage. In North America the University of Toronto has for several years been running a project aimed at cataloguing Syriac inscriptions scattered around the Middle East, South India and as far as the borders of China. In the Middle Ages Syrian missionaries were indeed active in Central Asia, Tibet and the Celestial Empire, a story that is almost unknown in the West.



With the Islamic State dangerously advancing, priority certainly goes to hundreds of thousands of refugees, Christian, Yazidi, Muslim, who are hoping to return home. But Kiraz, P. Najeeb, P. Pius, the Benedictines of the HMML and many others have understood that the struggle is also for the conservation of memory. Because, as happened to the Jews in the face of Nazi violence, rebirth will happen also through the preservation of one's own past. While there is memory, there is hope. And one day, perhaps, the possibility of return.




For more information:



Gorgias Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Syriac Heritage, Gorgias Press, Piscataway (NJ) 2011