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Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel of Mosul, rescued ancient Christian texts from the threat of terror attacks. Photo courtesy CNEWA

The archbishop without a home

  • November 2, 2019

A fresh outbreak of violence across Iraq is preventing the Chaldean Archbishop of Iraq from visiting Canada. 

Archbishop Najeeb Michaeel had been scheduled to address a fund-raising dinner on behalf of Middle-Eastern Christians on Nov. 9. Organizers of the dinner from the Catholic Near East Welfare Association of Canada (CNEWA) are working on providing a video link so that Michaeel can address the crowd about the fate of Christians in the region.

“He’s chosen to stay with his people,” Daniel Torchia, a spokesperson for the CNEWA dinner, told The Catholic Register.

Although he is the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Michaeel doesn’t live in Mosul, but not for want of trying.

“I visit Mosul and visit our churches there and our monasteries one or two or three times a week,” Michaeel told The Catholic Register by phone from his temporary home in the village of Karemlesh, a half-hour drive east of the city in northern Iraq. “I don’t live there because I have no place. I have 14 churches destroyed completely, and four old monasteries going back to the fourth and fifth centuries — they also are destroyed.”

Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh Plain are still far from safe for Christians, he said..

“As a bishop, I don’t encourage them (Chaldean Christians) to go back and expose them to dangers,” he said. “We will wait, maybe some months, maybe one year. I don’t know exactly.”

When that time comes, Michaeel knows he will need resources not just to rebuild the churches, but to reknit the fabric of a war-weary, fearful and disintegrating society. 

A newly released report on persecution of Christians worldwide shows Iraq’s Christian population has declined by more than 80 per cent since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to remove Saddam Hussein from power. A fresh report from Aid to the Church in Need shows how the Christian population of Iraq has dwindled from around 1.4 million to “fewer than 250,000” in the last 15 years.

Michaeel has lived through it. The Dominican priest and scholar was in Mosul as the Islamic State rushed into the city’s power vacuum in 2014, burning churches and executing Christians. 

As the founder and director of the Digital Centre for Oriental Manuscripts, he was in charge of one of the largest collections of ancient Christian texts in the world. Before the terrorist army of the caliphate arrived, he had already digitized several thousand manuscripts and documents and distributed the digital copies to universities around the world. 

By the time the Islamic State soldiers arrived he had smuggled out hundreds of original manuscripts, some of them dating back to the fourth century.

“I call Archbishop Najeeb ‘the rescuer of manuscripts,’ ” University of Toronto professor in the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations Amir Harrak told The Catholic Register.

Every scholar in the field knows the vital role Michaeel has played in preserving their basic source material, Harrak said. On the same day that Michaeel will address the CNEWA donors, Harrak will be with scholars from around North America at the University of Toronto to discuss ancient texts from Iraq and Syria at the Canadian Society for Syriac Studies symposium.

Though there are some Christians who have returned to work in Mosul, they don’t live in the city. Most find that if their houses weren’t destroyed, they were given to other families who now regard the properties as their homes. Asserting rights to Christian homes may invite violent revenge, even murder, Michaeel said.

“The situation moves every week, every day sometimes, because the situation is not stable,” said Michaeel.

Michaeel meets regularly with local sheiks, tribal leaders, local politicians and legislators trying to work out a path for Christians to safely return. “The Christians are a minority and they have no army, they are not powerful,” he said. 

“So they stay a little outside this conflict region.”

Unsurprisingly, the scholar-bishop believes the future for both Christians and Muslims lies in education and respect for culture.

“The culture for us is very important,” he said. “And I believe that the future of humanity is in that culture. If we have an open mind, we will live peacefully. If not, we live in conflict.”

The CNEWA dinner is being held at the Toronto Grand Banquet and Convention Centre, 30 Baywood Rd. in Etobicoke.

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