Catholic University in Erbil Is a Beacon of Perseverance, Sowing Hope in Iraq

COMMENTARY: Archbishop Bashar Warda established the university 10 years ago, in the wake of the Islamic State’s campaign of genocide.

Students show their support for Catholic University in Erbil. (Photo: Courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need, 2021)

Historically, Iraqi Christians have been deeply challenged with persecution and have tried steadfastly to remain in their country and that of their ancestors; however, ISIS was particularly devastating for them — destroying their lives, livelihoods and instilling an ever-present fear to be able to live a dignified life anymore. Many have, therefore, been forced “with tears in their eyes” into the diaspora, with less than 250,000 souls now remaining. 

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil was not going to accept that hatred would win and see the end of Christianity in Iraq; out of the darkness, he would sow a great seed of hope to those who were losing their education. That seed would be sown in Ankawa, and it would also provide other great fruits for the future of Christianity in Iraq. 

Ankawa is the only Christian quarter on the outskirts of Erbil, the safe capital of Kurdistan, Iraq. In the unforgiving and blistering heat of an Iraqi summer, on Aug. 6-7, 2014, it found itself transformed and the center of international attention: Some 75,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) had fled there from ISIS. Mosul, the epicenter of the Islamic State group’s murderous military campaign in Iraq, was only 85 kilometers (52 miles) away. 

Amid the chaos, daily hubbub of crowded streets and frenzied activity, seeds were being sown by Archbishop Warda, who was ordained into that role in 2010 at 41 years old. Key issues that were important to him were education and health, ancient strengths of Iraqi Christians. Schools were needed and founded, with the shining beacon of light being the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE) — a rather bold name in a Muslim country, but from an archbishop who had the courage of his convictions, vision and a determined diplomacy to get what he needed. 

The Italian Bishops’ Conference gave him the money for the university; it was no easy matter to establish it in 2015, but he was determined in getting the myriad ministry and government permissions to do so. His initial and strategic goal was that he did not want the young displaced persons to miss out in their education; if they were not being educated, they too would head to the diaspora. 

A major issue was in paying the fees and accommodations; parents did not have the money to educate their children beyond high school, as ISIS had destroyed their livelihoods. Therefore, those fees had to be procured by a large worldwide appeal to donors: Aid to the Church in Need came to support scholarships with its “Pope Francis Scholarship Program” that currently supports 237 students; other major supporters include the Italian Bishops’ Conference (sponsoring 50 student scholarships), Italy; German Academic Exchange Service, Germany (19 scholarships); and the U.S. State Department (40 scholarships). The Knights of Columbus were always there to lend financial support for the university’s general running costs.

It is a wonderful and deeply religious Christian environment.

I came to the university in 2016, when it had around 55 students displaced in Ankawa. They loved the welcoming culture of the university; its inclusive formation for all faiths, which they proactively reached out to; the stellar teacher-student ratio; and the focus on learning in the English language that would afford them the opportunity to getting work with international companies in Erbil. They had their fears regarding security, their rights and regaining their homes, but they embraced the opportunity to be educated — no matter what that they had lost with ISIS’ brutal regime. 

Over the course of their degree, they became more confident about their future in Iraq and loved being able to express themselves through their life stories and views on how to achieve a better Iraq. The university is one engaging and existing with differences; this is creating a vibrant intellectual and philosophical culture within it, which bodes well for the future.

St. John Henry Newman saw a university as “a seat of wisdom, a light of the world, a minister of the faith, an Alma Mater of the rising generation. It is this and a great deal more, and demands a somewhat better head and hand than mine to describe it well” (The Idea of a University).

 


Student Perspectives

I witnessed how eloquent the students spoke with international journalists — not afraid to speak their minds. They are the future of a better country, and we should help them to achieve this by financial support or teaching coming from overseas. They need international teachers to come to Ankawa and teach for a year or two. 

CUE shared the perspectives of several students via email.

“I love the university because of the mixed ethnic groups, and freedom of speech, and the advanced education,” said Mohammed, a Muslim student.

“It’s a mixed community, and we are forgetting our past and we are learning new things every day about other ethnic groups, and we learn from each other’s culture,” said Almas, a Yazidi student. 

With the university accreditation, noted Rolan, a Chaldean Catholic student, “I could get job opportunities in the future, and I could help the country by developing new skills in the community.” 

Added Edyan, of the Kakayi faith, “The lecturers are great with us, and they encourage us to keep on going.”

At the university, I learned many things about the young, especially their unique fortitude, togetherness, forgiveness and willingness to help their neighbor, regardless of their faith; many had suffered from the brutality of ISIS, especially the Yazidis, the Kurdish-speaking ethnic-religious minority who live primarily in Iraq, who were brutally persecuted by ISIS. The young people eagerly volunteered in assisting the refugees in 2014 — and since. 

Christianity came there in the first century — it is in their blood, hearts and souls. The 8,000 Chaldean Christian families and other Christian faiths are being supported by a seminary of 20 students, six churches, four schools, a Catholic hospital, the Catholic University in Erbil, and an archbishop determined to ensure their survival.



10 Years of Learning

Coming up to its 10th anniversary with 11 undergraduate programs highly correlated to the job market, 590 students (24% Muslim, 14% Yazidi ), 59% of them women, the CUE is singularly placed as the only institution in Iraq where mixing with other faiths comes with absolute equality and trust from those of other faiths. This trust and formation have made a significant difference to the young of all faiths, enabling them to dialogue together, enjoy activities together and foster hope for the future.

The Catholic university is one of the key projects for keeping Christianity in Iraq, as families will stay if their children can be educated to secure jobs for a dignified life in their homeland. It is also becoming an educational institution hallmarked by successful social cohesion, a project that will build alumni who share mutual goals for a united Iraq. Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, of Kurdistan, attended the October 2023 commencement ceremony, praising the university for its excellent formation of young Iraqis and calling it “sacred ground.”

The students still need donors for their education and accommodation, but the university is a success story emerging from the darkness and sheer evil of ISIS, where the Ankawa Christians and those spread across Iraq/Kurdistan stand firm in their faith to keep the spirit of Jesus Christ alive in Iraq. 

As Archbishop Warda said, “If we left, who would bring Christ to Iraq? Who would be the light of Christ to the people here, if not us?” 

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil talks with CUE students.(Photo: Courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need, 2021; via CNA)


At Westminster Abbey last November, he was invited to deliver the homily celebrating the 25th anniversary of the installation of statues honoring 10 modern martyrs in the abbey’s west wing, including three Catholics. “To witness for Christ is a treasure beyond all value that we hold deep in our souls,” he said

What he, his priests, his sisters and his determined students from all areas of Iraq and his vibrant staff have achieved in 10 years, amid persecution, war, widespread unemployment and COVID, shows the Holy Spirit creating a beautiful and ever-radiant light that is full of hope for those Christians that remain in Iraq. They still need help, amid ISIS-destroyed livelihoods, and unemployment remains very high in their villages. 

As a European, I believe this stands as an amazing witness — this type of Christianity where the life of the Christian community absolutely revolves around the Church. They totally rely on their shepherds, who know everyone in their community by name and family. These shepherds come from that ancient, selfless line — and very sadly, a recent one — where the seed of the Church is the blood of the martyrs.

 

John Neill is retired from the BBC. He currently serves as a volunteer for the Chaldean Archdiocese of Erbil as a consultant in raising funds for the university, the four schools, six churches and a hospital.

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