To mark papal visit to Iraq, ACN launches project to invest in young people

TO MARK THE PAPAL VISIT TO IRAQ, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) this week announced a new program that will spend $1.8M to support young Christian students in the country. The program will provide scholarships for 150 students at the Catholic University of Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, for the next four years. The principal aim of the is to provide young Christian students with better employment prospects in the future, and to promote social cohesion among various faiths.

Students at the Catholic University in Erbil

“Without a doubt, the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE) is a beacon of light and a symbol of hope, especially for the younger generation. Helping the CUE financially by means of scholarships will be an immense support, and this aid will not only benefit a limited number of young people, who are hoping for a better future; at the same time it will be a powerful gesture of solidarity towards the Christians and all the other minorities and the disadvantaged in the region,” explains Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Erbil, the founder of the university.

Within Iraqi Kurdistan, the Christian minority can live with a relative, but by no means absolute degree of security. There is a persistent underlying sensation of insecurity, owing above all to the tense economic situation. As a result, young people especially are faced with the dilemma of staying put or emigrating. The number of Christians in the country has decreased dramatically in the past 10 years. The CUE, which was founded five years ago, is seeking to offer a different solution by giving young people with better prospects for the future.

Most of the students at the CUE are refugees or internally displaced persons from various other parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, Basra, Diala, Duhok, Kirkuk, the Nineveh Plains and Mosul. “We believe that this project will support the Pope’s message in favor of social cohesion and reconciliation. The university is centered around diversity—with a student population comprised of 72 percent Christians, 10 percent Muslims and 18 percent Yazidis. Here young people of different creeds can learn to live together in harmony,” said Thomas Heine-Geldern, the executive president of ACN.

“The Catholic University in Erbil is a project of crucial importance for those Christians who wish to stay on in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, since it will help them to remain. The Christians would not think of abandoning their country if they did not feel obliged to do so by forces beyond their control. 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 stay on in their native land, by investing in the reconstruction of their homes, their churches and essential infrastructure. Now is the time to initiate this major project, which is a very ambitious one for us, and invest in the young people of the country,” Heine-Geldern continued.

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To date, the CUE is the only Catholic university in the country and offers a range of degrees, including in architecture and civil engineering, for example; 54 percent of the students are female and 46 percent are male. Currently there are 170 students enrolled, but the archbishop would like to increase this number over the next four years. ACN’s financial support is indispensable, given the current difficult economic and political situation in Iraq.

“I have always deeply appreciated the work ACN has done for us over many years, and especially after ISIS. To have ACN as the first foundational core donor for the scholarship program is most appropriate and most welcome. We need to bring good news to the people here during the papal visit; to be able to announce the vision to have 1000 students by 2025, giving us a significant voice and a clear future for our young people and their parents, brings great hope,” said Archbishop Warda.

—Maria Lozano