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Meet the priest racing to save Iraq's ancient history from ISIS

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Meet the priest racing to save Iraq's ancient history from ISIS

WATCH | This Iraqi priest is saving Christian history one parchment at a time

Wearing white gloves and using a dull knife, Father Najeeb Michaeel carefully flips through pages of yellowed, tattered manuscripts -- some of which are over a thousand years old. 
"I want to show you something very rare. It's a little treasure."

From his office in Erbil, Michaeel shows us a 17th century Bible written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. It's one of the thousands of antiquities he and his team have managed to keep out of the hands of ISIS.

Since ISIS came to prominence in 2014, it has targeted the country's cultural heritage. Michaeel, a Dominican monk, is on a mission to preserve it.

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As director of the Digital Center for Eastern Manuscripts, Michaeel painstakingly digitized thousands of documents to ensure they remain available to future generations.

I prepared all our collections and put them in boxes in very big containers.
Father Najeeb Michaeel

In August 2014, Michaeel was working in Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian city. Knowing the militants would loot and destroy the city's antiquities should they find them, Michaeel formulated a plan.

Ten days before ISIS invaded the city, he stashed as many rare books, artifacts and art into his truck as he could find. He then fled for Erbil.

In shocking images seen around the world, many of the region's greatest archaeological treasures have been reduced to rubble. Propaganda videos released by ISIS show militants taking bulldozers and sledgehammers to the ancient ruins of Hatra, Khorsabad, Nimrud, and Nineveh. 

Just like the Taliban destroyed 1,700-year-old Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001, ISIS has looted and destroyed sites in Iraq and Syria belonging to religious minorities, including Christians and Yazidis. 

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The United Nations’ cultural and educational agency, UNESCO, has described the destruction of landmarks in Iraq and Syria as a “war crime.” 

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Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.
Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.
Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.
Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.
Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.
Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.
Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.
Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.

The group justifies the destruction by claiming pre-Islamic art and religious shrines -- whether Islamic, Christian or Jewish -- is idolatrous. And yet, ISIS has sold many of the artifacts to black market buyers to finance its operations.

Michaeel and his team survey the damage in Qaraqosh in November 2016.

In November 2016, Michaeel returned to Qaraqosh with his team to collect what ISIS left behind.

 “We cried about this kind of image what we saw there. It's horrible. It's some kind of genocide," Michaeel said. 

They burned everything ... Ultimately, they burned our history.
Father Najeeb Michaeel

Many of the documents in Michaeel's collection are written in dead languages including Aramaic, Latin and Ottoman Turkish. They date back centuries, if not more. The oldest is at least 1,100 years old. 

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Michaeel's collection isn't limited to Christian texts. There are works on ancient astrology, geography and history, as well as manuscripts belonging to other religions including Yazidis and Muslims. 

This kind of collection is very important for humanity. That's why we keep it secret.
Father Najeeb Michaeel

Michaeel asked that we not share his exact location. He's afraid ISIS could loot the precious collection that remains.

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Videography by Yad Deen. Qaraqosh photos and video courtesy of Watheq Ghanem Majeed. 

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