New Catholic University in Iraq ‘A Way of Fighting Back’ Against ISIS

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By Kimberly Scharfenberger |
Christians in Iraq have suffered great persecution from radical Islamist terror group the Islamic State (ISIS), but a new Catholic university in Erbil — the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan — recently opened its doors to students, and the Archbishop of Erbil said he hopes that its presence will motivate Iraqi Christians to stay in the region and work towards a better future.

“Our beloved Christian community has so many reasons to leave Iraq today,” said Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil to AsiaNews. “This is why this university is a strong motive to stay. We all have a great responsibility to give them reasons to stay.”

In July, Archbishop Warda told the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference that the university was “a way of fighting back against Daesh [Islamic State] and saying we (Christians) are not going to go away,” according to The Catholic Leader. “We’re not leaving, as they wished we would.”

The university held its opening ceremony on December 8. Students can take courses in economics, computer science, Eastern languages and literature, with future plans for a faculty of law and international relations. Enrollment is open “to anyone who wants to pursue higher education and training, including young refugees,” AsiaNews reported, and each year the university will welcome at least 250 additional students.

The foundation stone of the university was laid in 2012, and Archbishop Warda reportedly stated at the time that Erbil “need[s] these resources to help young Christians who want to continue to bear witness to the gift of their faith in their own land.”

Last year alone, more than 135,000 Christians fled the area due to violence perpetuated by ISIS, the Catholic Leader reported.

Many Christian leaders are calling on the U.S. government to declare the violence against Christians in the region as genocide. So far the State Department has not formally acknowledged that claim, but is expected to issue a statement declaring the religious persecution of Yezidis by ISIS as genocide.

“On Dec. 4, 30 Christian leaders, including Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, asked for a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry in advance of that declaration,” according to a report published on Catholic New York. “The meeting has yet to be scheduled.”

Chaldean Catholic Bishop Francis Y. Kalabat, head of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle in Southfield, Mich., said that the Christians being persecuted in the region “are being victimized by the Obama administration in not recognizing their suffering.”

The bishop recognized the atrocities against the Yezidis, calling them “horrific,” but criticized the Obama administration for not going further in recognizing the horrible violence against Iraqi and Syrian Christians.

“[T]here are also atrocities of rape, killings, crucifixions, beheadings, hangings that the Syrian and Iraqi Christians have endured and they are intentionally omitted,” he said. “I hate to say this, but this [the Obama administration does] to their shame.”

Archbishop Warda told the Catholic Leader that 572 Christian students in Erbil had no university placements at local universities.

“It is our responsibility to help them help themselves and to open the doors for a reliable future so they will be able to contribute to the well-being of the Iraqi nation,” Archbishop Warda said.

Bishop Nunzio Galantino, secretary-general of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, also attended the opening ceremony on December 8. According to AsiaNews, the Italian Bishops’ Conference has donated $2.5 million to the university, and Bishop Galantino noted that the school will hopefully lay “the foundation of a new history and a promising future.”

“I hope that all the students — Christians, Muslims, Yazidis — will be able to breathe the Catholic faith and its fundamental values,” Archbishop Warda told AsiaNews. “I am … convinced that this university is a sign of hope.”

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