Scholarships help cement legacy of papal visit to Iraq

LESS THAN ONE YEAR AFTER THE POPE’S HISTORIC VISIT TO IRAQ, and despite difficulties caused by the pandemic, the first cohort of students have started to benefit from the “Pope Francis Scholarships” funded by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

This partnership between ACN and the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE) is helping to build a more promising future for Iraqi Christians and members of other minorities in the north of the country.

ACN will be the first and main donor, with a commitment of more than $1.7 to fund the “Pope Francis Scholarships.” They will benefit 150 students—90 percent of them being Christians—over a period of four years. Many of the students are internally displaced, having been forced from their homes in the surrounding region by the Islamic State in 2014.

Under the banner of the “Pope Francis Scholarships,” a cohort of 128 students, comprising 113 Christians, 12 Yazidi and 3 Muslims, supported by ACN, have started the academic year of 2022/2023. The organization also supports accommodations near the university in Erbil for 12 female and 2 male students who are originally from the Nineveh Plains.

Initially set to be launched in the fall of 2021, in the aftermath of the historic papal visit to Iraq, the Pope Francis Scholarship program was postponed to 2022 because of the pandemic.

“The CUE model encourages the whole family to stay and not to emigrate; their children will have an excellent education to obtain work and therefore a future in Iraq to support themselves and their parents,” Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil and founder of the university.

Students at the Catholic University in Erbil

“If young Christians can be given an opportunity to gain a good education, then they will remain. ACN has already done everything possible to help the Christians to remain in their native land, by investing in the reconstruction of their homes, their churches and essential infrastructure. Now is the time to invest in the young people of the country,” declares Thomas Heine-Geldern, executive president of CAN.

The CUE currently has 280 students in four different years, working to obtain degrees in courses that vary from architecture and medical laboratory science (MLS), to accounting and English. More departments such as pharmacy will open next year, allowing even more choice for students to be able to come to the university. Crucially, students are exposed to a Christian ethos and Catholic Social Teaching which is not possible anywhere else in Iraq.

Since it was founded in 2015, the Catholic University has enjoyed great success, and is already ranked 41th out of 250 higher education institutions in Iraq. All teaching and study is done in English. Archbishop Warda hopes to see it climb into the top 10 within a few years. But alongside academic excellence, the valuable fruits of this university are the promotion of social cohesion and interreligious harmony in a country still recovering from nearly two decades of conflict and Christian persecution.

“I thank all the very hardworking ACN offices worldwide and all of their donors in supporting the young Christians of Iraq, to have not only a right, but the actual opportunity to obtain a higher education. It gives them and their families hope for the future. I thank all at the CUE for such an achievement during the pandemic,” says Archbishop Bashar Warda.

Mr. Heine-Geldern believes that this is a fitting way to keep the legacy of Pope Francis’ visit alive. “We believe that this project will support the Pope’s message in favor of social cohesion and reconciliation. The University is centered around diversity. Here young people of different creeds can learn to live together in harmony.”

—Felipe d’Avillez & Maria Lozano