Stolen manuscripts resurface as Iraqi security forces engage Islamic State cells, but safety concerns for minority communities still loom large.
By Joe Snell
Iraqi security forces have recovered dozens of hidden Syriac manuscripts that were stolen from Assyrian churches in Mosul during the city’s occupation by the Islamic State (IS). The historical writings were found after a suspected IS fighter led to their location and were in his possession, according to a statement by Mosul police chief Laith Al Hamdani.
During the nearly three years that IS controlled large parts of Iraq and Syria, Iraqi Christians were largely driven from the region under threats of death unless they either converted to Islam or paid a “protection tax.” Major manuscript collections in Mosul were among the casualties, “leaving behind only the digital images and a handful of severely damaged volumes,” the Rev. Columba Stewart, a Benedictine monk and executive director of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library in Minnesota, told Aleteia in October 2019.
Now, as Iraqi security forces supported by coalition troops continue to engage IS cells, they are uncovering stockpiles of stolen texts that are crucial to understanding and preserving ancient communities such as the Assyrians, an ethnic group indigenous to parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran.
"Syriac manuscripts are important cultural heritage items of sacred value and historical relevance,” said Alda Benjamen, the Avimalek Betyousef post-doctoral Fellow in Assyrian history at UC Berkeley. “Syriac manuscripts can advance our understanding of northern Iraq, a region with an abundance of cultural diversity, and ancient heritage."
Police in Iraq who arrested the suspected member of the Islamic State were led to a stockpile of 32 old books and manuscripts looted from churches across Mosul in August. The arrest took place in the Bab al-Jadid district of Mosul’s old city, much of which was destroyed by coalition bombing. Police said the books were hidden in a compartment in the kitchen.
Iraq is home to one of the world’s most ancient Christian communities. Before 2000, more than 1.5 million Christians — including Chaldeans, Syriacs and Assyrians — considered Iraq home. Shortly before the IS takeover, over 800,000 fled abroad, according to a report by the Atlantic Council. Today, the number of Iraqi Christians is around 150,000.
In a conversation with the Chaldean Catholic patriarch last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi urged the return of Christians to their homeland.
“Iraq is the country for everyone and Christians are the original children of the country,” he said. “We are serious about providing assistance to our Christian families and solving their problems. We are glad that Christians will return to Iraq and contribute to its reconstruction. Iraqis of all sects are yearning for a new Iraq that believes in peace and rejects violence.”
But many inside these minority communities criticized the remarks as unrealistic and demanded the federal government first rein in armed militias that continue to influence the region and threaten their safety.
Survivors of IS who belonged to marginalized communities such as the Assyrian Chaldeans and Yazidis list security as their top fear when it comes to returning, according to Reine Hanna, director of the Assyrian Policy Institute, as cited in the Atlantic Council report. Hanna estimates that only about 7% of people have returned to areas such as the Ninevah Plains.
Suzan Younan, an Assyrian American who moved to Erbil in 2018, told Al-Monitor that there is no trust that either Kurdish peshmerga or Iraqi forces would keep these communities safe.
“When the vulnerable communities witness their history being stolen, destroyed and sold in their areas of origin, that fear increases dramatically,” she said. “Until today, we [Assyrians] have not experienced improved acceptance of our rights from the majority communities.”