Will Catholic Colleges Help Rebuild Nineveh?

Franciscan University of Steubenville-Catholic University in Erbil Partnership Benefits Students, Aids Iraq

Franciscan University of Steubenville has forged a unique partnership with the Catholic University in Erbil. Students such as Hala Warda are benefitting from the experience.
Franciscan University of Steubenville has forged a unique partnership with the Catholic University in Erbil. Students such as Hala Warda are benefitting from the experience. (photo: David Deptula; courtesy of Franciscan University of Steubenville)

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Facing death and danger as a Catholic caught in the crossfire of Iraq’s brutal civil war, Hala Warda and her family escaped Iraq in 2008 for safety in the United States.

But today, in the aftermath of the genocide wrought by ISIS, Hala is getting ready to go back to Iraq. She is determined to rebuild the Christian presence where it has been for nearly 2,000 years.

“I never forgot those who are still suffering in Iraq and who are losing hope in life,” Warda told the Register. “I realize the pivotal role I can play in empowering those people and install hope in life again.”

Warda is on the path to return to northern Iraq, the cradle of Christianity in the Middle East, thanks to a unique partnership forged by the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the Catholic University in Erbil and to a scholarship funded by Aid to the Church in Need-USA (ACN-USA).

Warda, who earned a business studies degree from Al-Dijla University in Iraq, is earning an MBA. She is part of Franciscan’s Catholic leadership program and expects to graduate from the university with a master’s in education by 2021.

Edward Clancy, director of education at ACN-USA, told the Register that the U.S.-based papal charity wanted to help spur the return of Christians to the Middle East and rebuild the fragile Christian presence. Franciscan recognized ACN’s work helping Christians facing genocide in 2015, when it awarded ACN the “Poverello Award.” Clancy said Franciscan offered to do whatever it could to help, and thus the scholarship idea was born.

“The goal here [with the scholarship] was to help the presence of Christians in the Middle East, but also provide a reason to come back,” he said. Warda learned about the scholarship program and wrote to Archbishop Bashar Warda (no relation), the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil and founder of the Catholic University in Erbil. Clancy said Archbishop Warda immediately contacted them and said, “I’ve found the perfect candidate.”

Christianity’s survival in the tapestry of Iraq’s society hangs by a thread following the 2014 invasion by ISIS, which inflicted a horrifying genocide on Christians, Yazidis and other small constituent groups of Iraqi society. Since the second century, Iraq’s Christians have always played a vital role in providing education and health care, explained Hala Warda. But Iraq saw a “brain drain” of Christians starting with the eight years of the Iran-Iraq War and the U.S. sanctions on Iraq during the 1990s. Then two-thirds of Iraq’s 1.4 million Christians fled following the 2003 U.S. invasion and ISIS’ genocide in 2014. “Among those who fled Iraq first were those of high educational backgrounds,” Warda said. “It is very obvious and clear that the survival of the Christian community in Iraq is very dependent on whether Christians are able to reclaim their role in the society once again.” Today approximately 200,000 Christians are estimated to remain in Iraq. The challenge for Christian leaders in Iraq has been to reverse the decline and grow their presence again.

Archbishop Warda has focused on creating strategic partnerships between Catholic universities in the U.S. and Europe and the Catholic University in Erbil. His plan is not just survival, but to find a way for Christians to thrive in Iraq.

“Education is one of the areas in which the small Christian population of Iraq has traditionally demonstrated our value to the greater population,” the archbishop told the Register.

The Catholic University in Erbil, which is key to the archbishop’s plan, is located within Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government. The university broke ground in 2012 and then opened in December 2015 as Iraq’s Christians faced an existential crisis not seen since the 15th-century Mongol conqueror Tamerlane almost wiped out the apostolic Church of the East, which had stretched from the Middle East to China. “One way to reclaim our role in the Iraqi society is by being able to produce and form future Christian leaders,” Hala Warda explained.

She said unemployment on the Nineveh Plains is “very high, reaching almost 70% of the total population.” Many families are still living off savings, and international agencies and the Iraqi government, she explained, have not made significant strides in restoring people’s livelihoods. “People want to be able to live in dignity, and they want their kids to live a decent life where they can attend school or be able to find jobs,” she said. “That’s why many are choosing to leave.”


Franciscan’s Partnership

In December, Franciscan and the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE) signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that provides a foundation for future cooperative activities and cross-cultural exchanges between the two universities. In a statement provided to the Register from Franciscan, Father Dave Pivonka, Franciscan’s president, noted that despite the enormous devastation they have endured, “the [Christian] men and women of Iraq are people of great faith who have the desire to learn more about their faith and a desire to be educated, and we are excited to help in any way we can.” 

Archbishop Warda said the goal is “developing a quality core of Iraqi Christian educators and scholars from which we can continue to maintain a viable and thriving place in the cultural fabric of Iraq.”

Archbishop Warda said that “ideally the exchanges will be in both directions.”

Such an exchange might one day lead to Franciscan students learning Arabic and Aramaic and having opportunities to do missionary work in Iraq, such as at the Maryamana Catholic Hospital or the Christian schools in Erbil where they could teach a variety of subjects. But at present, until the political situation stabilizes more, Archbishop Warda envisions only students and faculty at CUE making regular visits to Steubenville, with some entering the degree programs.


More Opportunities

In addition to its partnership with Franciscan University, Archbishop Warda said the Catholic University in Erbil has developed a “very positive working relationship with the University of Dallas” (UD). Several students are getting advanced degrees at UD that will allow them to join CUE’s staff.

Archbishop Warda is also in the process of developing relationships with Catholic universities in Europe. “It is our hope that over time all of these relationships will allow us to develop a world-class, Iraqi-born faculty for our university,” he said. He also said that since the CUE is accredited by Iraq’s education ministry, there will be opportunities that will work to the advantage of CUE’s partners in the future.

“Our unique location and experience provides many opportunities for serious research partnerships in the field of cultural preservation, ancient Christianity, religious freedom, archaeology, genocide prevention and early warning, and many other areas,” he said. “We are actively working to develop partnerships in these areas and believe they will be a cornerstone for us as we grow in the coming years.”

ACN’s Clancy said his organization was encouraged by Franciscan’s agreement with the Catholic University in Erbil and believed “it could be a catalyst for more [agreements].” He noted that Catholic universities like Franciscan tend to attract students with a “missionary spirit.”

“They want to do something to serve,” he said. In addition to Hala Warda, he said, there are young people in the second and third generation of Iraqi immigrants who feel a pull to help rebuild their ancestral homeland. He met one young man who wants to go to Iraq as a Chaldean Catholic priest. In the case of Warda, Clancy said that even though Warda’s family had concerns about her potential return, given what they had experienced in Iraq, “She was very strongly desirous to go back.”


Much Work to Do

Both before and after she left Iraq, Warda had assisted the Church in evangelization as well as spiritual and pastoral formation in Iraq’s provinces and in Lebanon.

Warda said she knows what people in Iraq are going through each day and feels “obligated to go back and help other Iraqis, especially those who are disadvantaged and those who are persecuted.”

She added, “I understand their needs and their suffering, because I was once in their situation.”

There is a great amount of work to do, but Hala Warda believes God has blessed the U.S. with “talented and courageous young people” who can help Christianity bloom in Iraq again.”

“If I and others are willing to go back and plant the seed of hope and prosperity and serve the needy Christians in Iraq, I am sure many others will join,” she said. “And Franciscan University is a great place to start from.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a

Register staff writer.

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