- Associated Press - Saturday, March 19, 2016

COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. (AP) - An alleged Islamic extremist is the first person to ever be charged with war crimes for destroying religious and cultural monuments.

Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi is accused of leading an al-Qaeda attack in 2012 that annihilated historic shrines in the West African nation of Mali. Luckily, thousands of holy manuscripts dating back to the 13th century were smuggled out before al-Qaeda arrived.

Thanks to the Benedictine monks of St. John’s University in Collegeville, they will be saved forever. The Benedictines are also trying to stay ahead of ISIS, which has destroyed more than 100 religious sites in Iraq and Syria.

KSTP-TV’s Kevin Doran (http://bit.ly/1UbdKpg ) received rare access to see how they are preserving history.

There is nothing rushed about the quiet life of Benedictine monks at St. John’s. Collegeville, Minnesota is far away from Syria and Iraq where ISIS is pillaging and destroying churches, monasteries and mosques. But the destruction in the Middle East has the Benedictines racing to save holy manuscripts before ISIS gets them first.

“A place like Mosul is extremely dangerous; all the Christians are gone,” Rev. Columba Stewart, the Executive Director of the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library, or HMML, said.

Stewart says St. John’s has a collection of manuscripts dating back to the 5th or 6th century. You can see more holy manuscripts here than any other place in the world.

“And this is where we have our 93,000 reels of microfilm” Stewart said, walking into a basement storage room.

Fifty years ago, during the Cold War, monks from St. John’s started putting manuscripts on microfilm.

“And so here you see some of those tens and tens of thousands of rolls,” Stewart said. “This is European history. This would be a Latin manuscript from an Austrian monastery from the very early days of our work in the 1960s.”

The Abbot of Saint John’s Abbey, Rev. John Klassen, says Benedictine monks have done this kind of work for centuries.

“It’s almost part of our DNA.”

Benedictines have always preserved the past. In the Dark Ages, before printing, monks copied manuscripts by hand.

“But the fundamental concept is simply the importance and significance of human cultures from the past,” Klassen said.

Instead of copying manuscripts by hand, today they use cameras and computers to digitize manuscripts, both here at St. John’s and in places where they are threatened by war, the environment and neglect. For five decades, HMML has worked in 23 countries. The budget this year is $2.4 million.

The library has a network of hundreds of people of different faiths who speak many languages and have one goal: to safeguard history. They train locals to handle fragile texts and provide the equipment to take pictures of each page and create digital copies. The hard drives are then shipped back to Collegeville where they are cataloged and stored.

Roughly 2,000 manuscripts have been photographed in Mosul since 2014. One is from the library of the Dominican Friars, which is no longer there. It was printed in 1516 and announces the voyage of Christopher Columbus to the new world. The book was smuggled out before ISIS arrived.

Stewart says many other originals could not be saved. On a large computer screen he showed a page from a 10th or 11th century Syriac manuscript from Mosul, Iraq. He said he is pretty sure the original has been destroyed by ISIS.

But the manuscript lives on thanks to the Benedictines at St. John’s who have archived all those stories.

“Nobody has had the heart to count,” Columba said. “But we think it’s over 50 million pages. So it’s a lot of stuff.”

It’s our collective history, and there’s only one place you can see it all: in a library, on a hillside, in central Minnesota.

In April, the HMML at St. John’s will unveil the world’s largest online collection of holy manuscripts. It will be free for anyone to use.

For more, take a look at the slideshow below, showing more behind the scenes photos at HMML and the work they are doing around the world.

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Information from: KSTP-TV, http://www.kstp.com

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