By John Pontifex
Archbishop Warda (courtesy of Aid to the Church in Need)
Plans for a university and a hospital in northern Iraq are intended as â€œsymbols of hopeâ€ enabling Christians to build a future away from the violence and intimidation that have caused so many to flee the country.
The two initiatives planned for Ankawa, a suburb of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, passed a crucial hurdle today when the regional government guaranteed a gift of two pieces of land on which to build both structures.
The 30,000-square-metre site allocated for the university is close to an 8,000-square-metre plot set aside for the 100-bed hospital complete with eight operating theatres and a medical wing.
Announcing the plans to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil said both schemes would provide jobs, training and other opportunities for thousands of Christians flooding into the relative security of Kurdistan, away from the religious violence, especially in Baghdad and Mosul.
Speaking after a committee of faithful and clergy met to advance the schemes, Archbishop Warda said: â€œThe plans we have been developing over the past few months are symbols of hope for the Christian presence in our country.â€
He went on to explain how both initiatives emerged in response to a growing realisation that the influx of Christians into the area included many highly skilled professionals with expertise in education and medicine.
Speaking from Erbil, Archbishop Warda told ACN: â€œThe people arriving here from places of violence are receiving the gift of relative security.
â€œThey themselves are willing to offer the gift of their services in a region which cannot cope with the demands of an increasing population.â€
Although both the hospital and the university will be Church-run and owned by the Archdiocese of Erbil, Archbishop Warda stressed that both would open their doors to all people irrespective of religious and political differences.
Archbishop Warda said that before building work could begin, a fundraising campaign was necessary.
He said he hoped governments in the West as well as charities and other NGOs would be generous.
The archbishop also said he hoped to receive advice and support for similar schemes elsewhere in the Middle East such as the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, in Lebanon, founded by Maronite Catholics in 1961.
He added that if the plans went to schedule the two institutions could open within two years.
The archbishop went on to stress that a key factor behind both projects was to provide jobs and other opportunities thereby discouraging the Christian exodus from a country whose faithful have plummeted from more than 800,000 to barely 200,000 within a decade.
He said: â€œWe do not want Christians to leave Iraq. It is clear that our society here needs schools, universities and hospitals and this provides us with an opportunity to encourage the Christians to build a future for themselves here.â€
Successive waves of killings, kidnappings and other violence have forced vast numbers of Christians to flee Baghdad and Mosul, seeking sanctuary especially in the north under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government, which is now one of the only parts of Iraq largely untouched by violence against minorities.
The latest wave of new arrivals came after the October 31 2010 massacre in Baghdadâ€™s Syrian Catholic Cathedral where 58 people died and more than 70 were injured.
Archbishop Warda said Christians coming into his diocese included 2,000 from as far away as Basra in the south.