Erbil, Iraq -- In a ceremony highlighted by the overcoming of persecution and sectarianism, students of Iraq's only Catholic university graduated on Thursday, expressing hope that their community's future will be characterized by an unfamiliar phenomenon - peace.
Fifty students of the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE) graduated in a ceremony attended by senior religious and political figures from the region, using the event as a platform to promote coexistence and call for an end of sectarianism in Iraq, a country synonymous with the term.
"What our students have acquired is this social friendship that they have, the atmosphere that when they see different people from different cultural and religious backgrounds in their graduation, they are all very happy for each other and everyone is excited for them," Bashar Matti Warda, Erbil's Chaldean Archbishop and CUE's Chancellor, told Rudaw English.
CUE is a private, non-profit university located in Erbil's Christian-majority district of Ainkawa. Warda found the university in 2015. The university provides bachelor's degrees in many fields, including engineering, information technology, and pharmacy. It is a relatively new institution, with the 2022 graduating class being its second since it was established.
Warda stressed that in order for the Christian community to prosper in Iraq, help has to come from within.
"I am not in the mood for waiting for other people to do something for me. I will take care of my community as much as I can, but really nobody can do anything for us unless we move ourselves to do so," he said, urging for the utilization of education as a means of influence rather than "aiming to be powerful."
The university's top student and main student speaker is a refugee whose family fled the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in 2010 to Batnaya village after receiving death threats for being Christian. In 2014, the family was once again on the run after the Islamic State (ISIS) swept through Nineveh, inflicting countless atrocities on the indigenous Christian population as well as various others including Yazidis and Shiite Muslims.
"I had to work at the age of 14 and for a year I was the only source of income for my family," Saad Hanna Polis told Rudaw English, recalling his traumatic past while proudly breathing in his success and advocating for change.
When asked about where he came from, Polis described himself as "one of the faces, the representation of that part of Iraq" and said he will provide his maximum effort for the country to recover from sectarianism and hate.
Another important figure present at the event was Cardinal Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Babylon. He expressed concern about the "scary" rise of illiteracy in Iraq and criticized religious extremism in his speech.
"Religious extremism has destroyed coexistence, politicized sectarianism, and broken the Iraqi fabric," he said.
According to Vida Habeeb Hanna, the public affairs and communications director at CUE, 78% of the university's students enjoy a full scholarship while the rest receive partial funding, including housing.
"This university was established for the people in need and for the people who have suffered so much. It is open to everyone, we have Yazidis and ISIS survivors who were held captive by ISIS and rescued," Hanna told Rudaw English.
"We found them a safe space here to pursue their education," she added.