By Samuel Butterfass
The ongoing war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is closer to Collegeville than some may realize.
In a segment of 60 Minutes, the investigative reporting series on CBS, Fr. Columba Stewart, O.S.B. of St. John’s Abbey and the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) was featured on Christmas Eve.
It was called “The Men Saving History from ISIS,” and it overviewed Stewart’s work in the preservation of ancient and modern manuscripts (documents written by hand).
Fr. Stewart is a teacher at the St. John’s School of Theology and has been director of HMML since 2003.
For over five decades, HMML has been photographing and more recently digitizing manuscripts for preservation from high-risk areas around the world.
Recent missions that HMML has conducted have been carried out by people local to the culture being preserved, with HMML staff playing an advisory role, supplying expertise and equipment Fr. Stewart said.
“It’s really about empowering them to preserve their own heritage,” Stewart said.
The most recent focus of HMML’s mission has been in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria where a civil war and the rise of the terrorist organization ISIS has threatened manuscripts and material culture.
Stewart contrasted the current state of Iraq and Syria with a historical insight.
“The whole Middle East at one time was characterized by pluralism—different peoples languages, different religions, coexisting,” Stewart said to correspondent Lesley Stahl back in May of 2017 during a one-on-one interview.
They were in Mosul, Iraq on the eastern half of the city which had been liberated by that time.
“We could see the airstrikes and hear the shooting from across the river. They were still very much fighting,” Stewart said.
Stewart says Mosul is where the worst losses of manuscripts and material culture have taken place in the fight against ISIS, where churches, mosques and shrines, and entire libraries have been destroyed. But it could be worse in Stewart’s eyes.
“The good news in other parts of northern Iraq is that people have been able to hide things. They’re not really accessible, but they’re safe, at least for the moment,” Stewart said.
Stewart said that this is where the HMML virtual library comes into play, because while these hidden texts may be inaccessible for the time being, many of them have been photographed and catalogued by HMML team members and are able to be read online.
Stewart didn’t hesitate to draw connections between his experience in the Middle East and radical groups in the United States.
“We have fundamentalist Christians [in America] who have a particular view of the Bible which doesn’t tolerate any kind of contextualization or interpretation,” Stewart said. “They may not be destroying our libraries yet, but we’re naive to think we’re exempt from that kind of thing.”
There’s plenty on the horizon for HMML. Stewart began facilitating new projects in Mali and India. He got back from a trip to India, Nepal and Lebanon last week.
But despite the years of preservation work the HMML completed Syria remains on their radar.
“It’s very difficult to call Syria [on the phone],” Stewart said. “We’re looking for ways to get back in [to Syria], because there’s work we didn’t get to finish.”
FEATURE PHOTO COURTESY OF CBS 60 MINUTES