CATHOLICS in Iraq are defying Daesh (Islamic State), not with weapons or violence but with education and learning – and Australian Catholic University is standing with them.
Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, in Kurdish northern Iraq, was a guest at the International Federation of Catholic Universities 25th General Assembly in Melbourne earlier this month where he sought help from delegates.
Archbishop Warda had talks with ACU representatives and Australian Catholic Bishops Conference president Archbishop Denis Hart to muster support for the establishment of a Catholic university in Erbil.
He said establishing a university was “a way of fighting back against Daesh and saying we (Christians) are not going to go away”.
“It’s about saying we want to stay,” Archbishop Warda said.
“We’re not leaving, as they wished we would.”
The Catholic University of Erbil is due to open in October.
ACU’s director of identity and mission Congregation of St Michael the Archangel Father Anthony Casamento said the university was exploring the best ways to help.
Some options included having ACU staff advise members of the Erbil university team, having staff come to Australia for advice and training, and possibly offering scholarships for Iraqi staff to come to ACU to complete masters degrees to qualify to teach at the Erbil university.
“Archbishop Warda said one of the most important things was to pray for the people of Iraq and to raise our voices on their behalf … and we’re committed to doing that,” Fr Casamento said.
“(Archbishop Warda’s visit) put into perspective the universal nature of the Church.
“Christians are still persecuted and we need to stand in solidarity with the Christians of Iraq.”
Archbishop Warda, of the Chaldean Catholic Church, said in his proposal to ACU that the new university “will embrace our Christian and Yezidi young men and women who were forcefully displaced from their areas and homes in the Plain of Nienveh in Mosul”.
“The university will also open its doors wide for Muslims who would learn side by side with Christians and Yezedis with an aim to shape a new and promising future for Iraq and the region,” he said.
More than 135,000 Christians were forced to flee from the violence of Daesh last year.
“Today more than 12,700 families live in the Chaldean diocese of Erbil since June-August 2014, and 7000 families live in different areas in the dioceses of Zakho, Amadiya and Sulaymania,” Archbishop Warda said in a letter to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
He said 572 Christian students had recently completed Year 12 in Erbil and there would be no university placements for them 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,” he said.
Archbishop Warda said in supporting the people forced to flee to seek refuge in Erbil the Church was “focused on shelter, education and health, and giving dignity and helping the people”.
His message for Australia’s Catholics was “to continue praying, (and) to continue to raise awareness of the persecuted people in Iraq”.
He called on Australians to continue their support of the humanitarian and education projects happening in the region.
“(I ask them) to live the Gospel of solidarity as they have done,” Archbishop Warda said.
He was grateful to the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference for a $500,000 donation last year and for sending a delegation of bishops to Erbil.
“They came and met the people and celebrated Mass with us, which was a good example of living that solidarity and what we’d like to continue,” he said.
Archbishop Hart said the Church in Australia was enthusiastic to do whatever it could to support Archbishop Warda’s proposals.