In an effort to persuade Iraqi Christians not to flee their homeland, local Church officials have opened a new Catholic university in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, which Erbil Archbishop Bashar Warda has called “a way of fighting back against Islamic State.”
The university is a statement that “we are not going to go away,” he said.
The new university—the first Catholic university in the city—opened its doors on December 8, the Catholic feast of the Immaculate Conception and the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Classes began on Friday, December 11, with 96 courses in biblical and theological studies attended by some 300 students. A number of these are refugees from nearby Mosul and the surrounding areas.
With Christians having so many motivations to leave Iraq today, the Archbishop said, the new university provides “a strong reason to stay.” Erbil has given shelter to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the violence of the Islamic State in Mosul and the Nineveh plain.
“We all have a huge responsibility to give them reasons to stay. I am therefore convinced that this university is a sign of hope,” he said.
The school’s foundation stone was laid in the autumn of 2012 in Ankawa, the Christian suburb of Erbil, with the goal of transforming the area into a locus of academic research.
The new university is offering courses in economics, computer science, Eastern languages, literature and business administration, and intends to open a school of law and international relations in the future.
Archbishop Warda said that the school “will be open to all” and “every year will welcome at least 250 students.” He also said he hopes all the students “will be able to breathe the Catholic faith and its fundamental values.”
Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the general secretary of the Italian Bishops Conference (CEI) who went to Iraq for the inauguration, said the university offers the possibility of “the foundation of a new history and a promising future” for the local community, which has suffered deeply from Islamic State violence.
Meanwhile, many Christian leaders are urging the Obama administration to declare the Islamic State’s persecution of Christians a “genocide,” an important designation that that carries legal, political and historical implications.
Such a declaration, many think, could increase pressure on the president to take action to protect Christian victims of the jihadist group.
According to Chaldean Catholic Bishop Francis Y. Kalabat, head of the Chaldean Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle in Southfield, Mich., Iraqi Christians being persecuted in the region “are being victimized by the Obama administration in not recognizing their suffering.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome