Archbishop Najeeb Mikhael Moussa will never forget the terrifying night he refers to as “black night.”
“Something dangerous [was about to] happen against our life and against our heritage,” Moussa recalled.
But Moussa’s actions that night helped save the lives of thousands of Christians and protect some of the most important Christian documents in history.
Moussa, a Catholic Chaldean Archbishop in Iraq, says the night of Aug. 6, 2014 was one of the most harrowing nights of his life.
The Islamic State (ISIS), which already controlled parts of Syria, was moving toward Moussa’s town of Qaraqosh after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces — a situation the United States classified as a potential “humanitarian catastrophe.”
“We are gravely concerned for their health and safety,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at the time about Christians in the area about 20 miles southeast of Mosul.
With ISIS on the move toward Qaraqosh, Moussa knew it was time to leave.
“At midnight, I started to leave with many thousands of families. [They were] crying, shouting and most of them had no cars,” Moussa told The World website.
ISIS, a Sunni Islamic extremist group that believes non-believers should be killed, had already tortured and killed thousands of Christians and other minorities in Iraq and Syria and carried out dozens of terrorist attacks in the United States and other countries.
ISIS was forcing Christians in Qaraqosh, home to Iraq’s largest Christian community, to pay a special tax as non-believers, or be killed. The ultimatum was forcing thousands of Christians to flee as ISIS moved into the area.
With Kurdish forces having pulled out, as many as 100,000 people were fleeing to the Kurdish mountains, the BBC reported, leading to an impassioned plea from the Vatican for “all necessary help.”
Pope Francis, the BBC reported, issued a statement saying the fate of Christians in the area depended “entirely on the solidarity of others.”
“It’s a catastrophe, a tragic situation,” Joseph Thomas, the Chaldean archbishop of the northern city of Kirkuk, told the BBC.
“Tens of thousands of terrified people are being displaced as we speak.”
With his people under attack and in immense danger, Moussa knew he had to react.
“I feel that something dangerous [was about to] happen against our life and against our heritage,” Moussa told The World.
Moussa helped evacuate Iraqi Christians, Syrians and Chaldeans to Kurdistan and safeguard more than 800 historic manuscripts dating back to the 13th thru 19th century.
For his heroic efforts, Archbishop Moussa has been nominated for the prestigious Sakharov Prize that’s awarded each year by European Parliament to recognize individuals and organizations that defend human rights.
This wasn’t the first time Moussa and his people have been forced to flee from ISIS terrorists. During the 2003 invasion by U.S.-led forces, his church in Mosul was attacked by “fanatic groups” that killed five priests and a bishop.
At one point, he found his own name was on an extremist hit list.
As a prominent religious leader, Moussa was in charge of ancient handwritten texts from the 12th and 13th centuries that covered a wide range of subjects on theology, philosophy, astrology, astronomy and medicine.
When he fled Mosul for Qaraqosh in 2007, he took the manuscripts with him.
On that terrifying night in August 2014, he had to protect the documents and his people again.
With only a few vehicles available, he loaded as many people as he could into two cars, with men, women, and children squeezed together on top of boxes filled with the ancient manuscripts.
“We put what we had in the cars,” he told The World. “When we [found out that] many people were without a car and they want to save their lives, we asked them to come in our car and [sit] on the heritage.”
“We said we will live together or we will die together.”
As they sped toward the Kurdish mountains, they were chased by cars with black and white ISIS flags.
“They [were] ready to attack us,” Moussa said.
“I started to pray. I asked God to give me 10 hands or 10 legs to save [the people and the manuscripts].”
As they approached the mountains, Kurdish forces opened fire on the ISIS convoy, allowing Moussa and other civilians to reach security checkpoints and safety.
They were among the lucky ones.
Human rights groups have documented mass killings of Sunni Iraqis and minorities, including many Christians, by ISIS forces. The mass killing of members of one Kurdish religious group, the Yazidis, has been ruled as genocide.
“There was a smaller number of Christians or Assyrians that lived under ISIS rule,” said Reine Hanna, director of the Assyrian Policy Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for minorities in the Middle East.
“These were more elderly, members of the community who were not able to travel. And […] it was a very traumatic experience, very scary and unknown on a day-to-day basis.”
ISIS terrorists also have pillaged and destroyed many Christian and heritage sites, often selling historic artifacts on the international black market. Witnesses in Qaraqosh reported ISIS militants taking down crosses and burning religious manuscripts.
Which made Moussa’s mission even more crucial.
The documents he helped save have been digitized and exhibited in France and Italy. The original manuscripts have been secured by the archbishop in Iraq.
His heroic efforts are being recognized with his nomination for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, which is awarded each year to individuals and organizations that “defend human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
The winner will be announced in December and awarded about $60,000. Moussa said he is dedicating his nomination to the Iraqi people.