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Sun, 24 Jan 2016 12:26 - Updated Sun, 24 Jan 2016 12:26

Roman Catholic priest has found a unique method of combatting ISIS in Iraq

BAGDAD - The international community is struggling to come up with a strategy to defeat the Islamic State (IS) — but on the ground in northern Iraq, a Roman Catholic priest has found his own way to fight the jihadists.

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Father Gabriel Tooma is not going after them with weapons.

He is not involved with any of the several Christian militias that have taken it upon themselves, in Iraq and neighboring Syria, to defend their villages against IS onslaught.

What he is doing, he says, is even more important to the Christian minority's fate in northern Iraq: He is rounding up ancient manuscripts and relics and hiding them in secure locations around Kurdistan, hoping to save them from the iconoclastic fury of the terror insurgency.

"If Daesh burns down a church we can rebuild it, but the manuscripts are our history. They trace back our roots, they are part of our civilization," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. "If they get destroyed, then we are lost, and our culture will be forgotten."

The 55-year old priest, a Jesuit-like Pope Francis, spoke during a meeting late last year at a monastery in al Qosh, in the Nineveh Plain.

His words took on a new, urgent meaning on Wednesday, when news broke that IS fighters had done exactly what he had said. The extremist militants had razed the oldest Christian church in Iraq, the 1,400-year old St. Elijah Monastery in Mosul, about 30 miles (50 km) from al Qosh.

In the face of this threat, Father Gabriel is trying to save what he can, including manuscripts dating back as far as the 11th Century.

They are mainly liturgical books, but there are also Old Testament stories, books on medicine, and miniatures drawn by monks. "These books have an inestimable value," he said. He has been at work for four years on scanning and saving them in digital format, with the help of the Italian NGO Un Ponte Per and funds from the Italian Episcopal Conference.

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