Babel Pontifical College:Resilance redefined

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babel_college1.jpgThe pontifical Babel college of philosophy and theology was founded in 1991.It is the only Christian theological faculty in Iraq and it belongs to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Iraq. Throughout its inception the college became an instrumental educational institute providing a higher scientific education for priests, monks, nuns and lay people. In 1997 the college was recognised and affiliated with the pontifical Urban university of Rome. The college was the brain child of the late Chaldean Patriarch, Raphael I Bidaweed (1922-2003) and is regarded as one of his greatest legacies.
The college is located in Al-Doura district (10 Kilometres south west of Baghdad). A district that was regarded before 2003 invasion of Iraq as a Christian stronghold with home to more than 5000 Christian households. With the high number of churches and Christian institutions it was often referred to as” The Vatican of Baghdad”.
The first rector of the college was the late Father Yousif Habbie.After his tragic death in a car accident in 2002 he was succeeded by Bishop Jack Issaq.The courses last six years. Two years of philosophy and four years of theology. The study programmes reflect the veraity and ecumenism that has forever characterised the spirit of the college. Father Bashar Warda, Curator of the college in Ankawa, said:”The uniqueness of the college lies in the fact that it enrols Christian students belonging to different Christian denominations such as Assyrians, Armenians, Syriac and Chaldeans all studying in perfect harmony” He added: “We even have over three Moslem lecturers in philosophy”.
1991 was a year when Iraq emerged from the violent and destructive Gulf war and as a result of its invasion of Kuwait the United Nations imposed economic and financial sanctions lasting 13 years. These sanctions were regarded as the toughest, most comprehensive sanctions in history.
Against this uncertain and turbulent background the college commenced its first term in October 1991. The college continued its progress and growth under the shadow of Saddam Hussein’s almost secular state. It is a sad fact that even under his philanthropy of terror and his despicable rule, Christians felt safe.
The adherents of all faiths were kept in check and were able to coexist in relative peace creating a tranquil interfaith relationship.
Father Bashar Warda said:”during Saddam Hussein’s regime the college was very much left (within limitation) to carry on its education. He added:”religious books and publications were subject to the usual censorship, dissemination of foreign books was strictly controlled”.
The library on its inception inherited over 8000 English books in theology and philosophy from the Jesuit library of Baghdad College. A further 6000 books and magazines were inherited from the Dominican Father’s Monastery in Mosul. Books were also donated by individuals and some were purchased. Some foreign organisations such as the French L’Oeuvre de L’orient and the German Misso also contributed the library’s inventory.Additionally, Catholic priests working with the American army contributed to the library.
Father Habib Jajuo, the parish priest in London, was the Library’s administrator between 1991-2003 he recalled:”one morning a large truck arrived at the building containing thousands of Catholic books donated to the library from the United States”.
The book inventory reached to 20000 and at it’s zenith it reached approximately 420000 books in English, French, Arabic and Italian. The library also housed some priceless manuscripts and books in Aramaic containg some profound writings of Christian history. Father Habib said:”there were some 44 manuscripts the oldest dating to 1560, this was the interpretation of the gospel by Bishop Odisho of Armenia dating to 1300.He added:”there were over 10 books in Latin dated to the sixteen and seventeen centuaries”.The library became one of the most ancient religious libraries in the region.
In 1993 the Bishop’s synod agreed to establish catechetical Christian institute attached to the college whereby catechist were trained for a three year course.
In 1994 the cultural centre was established within the college. It held lectures, exhibitions and forums and other educational and musical events.
In 2003 and, yet again, the spectre of war lingered over Iraq and the country was rapidly heading towards a whirlpool of war and destruction.
Prior to the U.S led invasion, The Iraqi army positioned anti aircraft missiles, radar and other military equipment alongside the external walls of the college this made the college a military target. As a result the college sustained damages to its structure.
Since the invasion of Iraq a wave of unprecedented cross-sect terror was ignited with the main groups of Sunni and Shia in a frantic race to exterminate each other. These groups also viewed the American led invasion as a Christian crusade and Iraqi Christians as its supporters and collaborators. The persecution of the Christians took the form of bombing, Kidnaping, Killing Women, men, the elderly and children were not sparred. Babel College also took its share of this violence. In August 2006 Father Saad Hanna Sirop was kidnapped by a gang of criminals. Father Hanna, ordante in Rome, was in charge of the theological department of Babel College. This caused uproar and a worldwide condemnation, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for his release. He was later freed in September.
As Iraq continued to loos all semblance of peace and order, abductions, assaults and threats continued in their ferocity against the Christian community this convinced the patriarchate to shut the college and then to move it to a safer place. This decision was made official on January 4th and on 7th of January the building was evacuated and relocated to Ankawa in Irbil northern Iraq.
Patriarch Emmanuel III Dely of the Chaldean Catholics told Vatican radio:”we have thought of the move for a long time to go to a tranquil place to be able to study better. When the situation is calmer we will return for the site”.
The leafy district of Al –Doura, were church bells’ resonate its streets, steadily fell under the sway of the insurgents and became the hornet’s nest of sectarian violence forcing the remaing Christians to abandon their homes en mass. It was a time when Christianity went back to its routes as the religion of the persecuted. In order to command better control of the area the American Army occupied Babel College and used it as “command post”. It was nicknamed by the American army COP Amanche.The college was occupied first by the 4th cavalry squadron of the first mechanised infantry division and then by the 2nd squadron of the second Stryker cavalry regiment. This controversial move further increased resentments towards Iraqi Christians as they were seen as American’s fifth column.Although, Iraqi Christians were innocent in the taking of the building. The Chaldean Patriarch never granted the use of the building to the American Military.Thier request to regain the building were not accepted by the army. In November 2007 the American army decided to leave the building and signed an agreement with the church to restore any damaged parts and to replace what was destroyed. The valuable library suffered no damages as it was sealed by the army when they took over the building.

The college settled in the new Christian neighbourhood of Ankawa.The honey combed houses are the dwellings of what is currently regarded as the largest concentration of Christians in Iraq.
The opening of the college was marked by a mass in the Mar Eliya Chaldean church celebrated by Bishop Jack Isaaq alongside many local dignitaries. About 25 seminarians were registered with the college alongside other students who are studying theology and philosophy.
Bishop Issaq commenting to Baghdad hope, a Chaldean Catholic news bulletin, said:”we need optimism and courage, and I am optimistic about the role of Babel College has and will have on the education of the Iraqi clergy. He added:” our duty as an ecclesiastic institution is to educate but above all prepare the future witnesses of Christ”.
The new imposing three story building hosts the Aula Magna and has four lecture rooms, library, computer and internet centre and a cafeteria. The new library contains some 6000 volumes a good number but nothing compared with the number in Baghdad.
The situation in Al- Doura is improving rapidly many of it’s churches have reopened and is now protected by the local pro-US Sunni paramilitary forces known as Sahwat Al -Doura ( Doura Awakening).Gradually normality is returning and whilst Al-Doura is regaining its glitter, the college intends to return to the building without closing the new one in Ankawa
 Father Bashar Warda says:”despite all the difficulties the college continues to walk with faith, believe and courage. He added:” we see the college expanding into two separate institutions one specialising in Theology and the other in Philosophy”. He concluded:”the college will continue to radiate hope and reanimate Iraq’s renowned Christian institutions preserving the Christian history. Through the words of our Saviour that it becomes the sustenance and energy of the college”.