Displaced young Iraqis whose education was halted by Islamic State’s
violent seizure of territory are receiving a vital opportunity to catch
up and train for professional life, thanks to the local Catholic
archdiocese and charitable donations.
The Catholic University of Erbil (CUE) opened in October 2016 and has
around 250 students, and unusually for the region, a majority of
non-Muslims and of women.
Stephen Rasche, the university’s vice-chancellor, said the students
were mainly Christians, but there were also Yazidis and Muslims.
He said their primary focus was on young people who have been
displaced by the jihadist violence in northern Iraq, and whose education
has suffered as a result.
A statement on the university’s website explains: “CUE seeks to
prepare leaders who are ethically, conscientiously, and administratively
prepared to serve society and the common interest … CUE actively
teaches tolerance and acceptance of others. It welcomes students from
all faiths, and the teaching and administrative staff come from various
traditions and religious backgrounds.”
Speaking in London last week, Mr Rasche added that the university’s
gender imbalance, which is about 60 per cent female and 40 per cent
male, was “intentionally sought after, because it’s a critical thing,
the education and treatment of women in the Middle East”.
Unlike most other Iraqi universities, tuition is carried out in
English, and this first year is a remedial year for focus on language
Mr Rasche said their goal is to have around 500 students per year,
“teaching as close to a Catholic liberal arts education as we can,
within the context of a Muslim country that’s Islamic by law.”
Courses and books have to be approved by the Ministry of Higher
Education, he said, and to be approved, university officials have to
prove that courses are not on offer at another institution, and that
there is a need for them. “It’s an uphill climb,” he said.
The university has so far been funded by charitable donations from
various Christian organisations around the world, including the Italian
Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Iraqi Christians in Need, the US arm of
the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, and
Its founders, including the Archbishop of Erbil, Bashar Warda, will
draw on the experience of the university in Baghdad that was founded by
Jesuit priests, to see “what can be possible”, he said. That institution
attracted students from many faith backgrounds before it was
nationalised under the Baathists in the 1960s. A Jesuit priest will join
the new university’s staff.
At the opening ceremony in December, Archbishop Warda said the
university symbolised Iraqi Christians’ determination to remain in their
home country despite recent years of violence.
“The university is a message to those who want us thrown out of the
circle of history. It means we are staying because we are deeply rooted
in this soil for thousands of years,” he said.