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Why We Opened a Christian University in Iraq Amid ISIS’ Genocide

CT interviews Stephen Rasche on Erbil’s Catholic presence, the need for Christian unity, and why Christians will “no longer be shy” with the gospel.
Why We Opened a Christian University in Iraq Amid ISIS’ Genocide
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch / Source Images: Courtesy of Chaldean Church and of Stephen Rasche / WikiMedia Commons / Unsplash

For 25 years, Stephen Rasche was a “bare knuckles” international lawyer. But in 2010, he offered his services to the Chaldean Catholic Church of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and has increasingly dedicated his life to the preservation of this ancient community.

Under the leadership of Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, in 2015 Rasche helped found the Catholic University of Erbil, where he serves as vice chancellor. Also the director of its Institute for Ancient and Threatened Christianity, Rasche lived this title as ISIS ravaged Iraq’s Christian homelands in the Nineveh Plains and many believers fled to Erbil.

After testifying on their behalf before the United Nations and the US Congress, Rasche allows them to represent themselves in his recent book, The Disappearing People: The Tragic Fate of Christians in the Middle East. The book has won a diverse range of endorsements, from leaders such as Matthew Hassan Kukah, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, Nigeria; Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim organization in the world; and Thomas Farr, president of the Religious Freedom Institute.

The US State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom reports that less than 250,000 Christians are living in Iraq, most in Kurdistan or on the Nineveh Plains. Two-thirds belong to the Chaldean Catholic Church.

CT interviewed Rasche about the logic of establishing a university during a genocide, how its Catholic identity functions in a Muslim society, and his enduring optimism for Christianity in Iraq.

What led you personally to invest your life in this endeavor?

In 2010, Bishop Warda had just been made archbishop, and I went to pay him a visit of respect, asking if there was anything I could do to help. “Yes, in fact,” he said. “You Americans have made a big mess here, and you could stay and help me. I have 3,000 displaced families here from the south, they need help, and no one is helping us with them. We don’t have jobs for them, and there’s a whole range of things I would like to do.”

I assisted on and off on a pro-bono basis for the next four years, but by 2014 the situation looked really desperate. ISIS was maybe 30 miles away from Erbil. But in a visit just after Christmas, I sat down with the bishop and the priests who told me, “We are going to stay. Will you be with us here, and help us?”

Honestly, I was skeptical. But after some deep thinking, I tried to determine the right thing to do and if there was a calling in this for me.

Tell us more about that calling.

Being an international transactions lawyer involved a fair amount of bare knuckles litigation. And not a lot of it, quite frankly, was fulfilling in the sense of believing that you were providing a meaningful service to the world or to your fellow brothers and sisters.

An open-heart surgery slowed me down for a couple of months, which allowed me to really ponder what I’d been doing and where I was going, particularly with my faith. How much did I really have? My discernment centered around the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. Do I really believe this? And if I really do, then what can I do to show it?

I can honestly say that those years on the ground in Iraq, especially 2015–2018 when everything was really difficult, eclipse all the other working years in my life in terms of a sense of worth, purpose, and well-being.

What does it mean practically to have a Catholic university in a Muslim-majority nation?

At a fundamental level, it’s about presence. It’s to say, “Look, we are a Catholic university, and in the middle of all of this, we are here.” Our view is very much long term. We see the importance in planting the seed. At the end of the day, the primary purpose of the university is to serve as an anchor institution for the remaining Christian population, so that they can demonstrate their value to the entire community.

But also, in the US and around the world, there is a discussion about the importance of religious freedom. Well, our Catholic university in Iraq was founded during the genocide. This gives us a unique moral standing and frame of reference that’s not academic. It’s not theoretical. It’s real. We can speak out and be real leaders on this.

Is there any role desired, or possible, in terms of witness and gospel?

Over the last 1,400 years in Iraq and most of the Middle East, proselytizing has been forbidden. What the Christians have done is practice what they call evangelization by example—opening hospitals, founding universities—so that the way you live your Christian life demonstrates your service towards others, regardless of who they are.

There was an unwritten understanding that the Christians would not overtly proselytize and share the gospel, but be indirect and not offend sharia law. But after ISIS and the lack of any real response from the Muslim world, Archbishop Warda says that this agreement is now finished. That as we go forward, we will no longer be shy. We are going to proclaim the gospel, proclaim the teachings of Christ, and whoever comes to us will come.

Interesting.

He basically said, “Look, what else can happen to us? They’ve tried to kill us, destroy us, wipe us out with genocide. And if it means that we’re approaching our end, we’re not going to go quietly—not anymore.”

Christians in Iraq are at a historical inflection point. Their presence here can be extinguished quickly in many ways—primarily if there were to be, God forbid, war or proxy war between the US and Iran. It would take place right where the Christians are living. It would make things completely untenable for them.

But I fully expect that if they make it through this current period, Christians will find ways to assert themselves in ways that they haven’t before. In the past, they tried to walk quietly, keep their heads down, and not cause any trouble. I think those days are over.

Your book features the testimony of local Christians about their situation in Iraq and the Middle East. Many might blame Western policies. Others might pinpoint Islam. But how do Christians identify their own failures? How do they evaluate their own contribution to their dwindling numbers?

In many respects, they blame a continuing division and discord that has left them far more vulnerable than if they were unified and supportive of each other. In some cases, it has also hindered the well-intended support coming from the West. It occurs between different groups within the apostolic churches; between the apostolic churches and the evangelical churches; and even within the evangelical community, where competing groups want to assist the apostolic Christians in different ways.

This division and discord are a failing that goes against the core teachings of Christ. While certainly not unique to the East, it is a failing which has had particularly tragic consequences for Middle Eastern Christians in the face of their many pressures over the last decades.

And these pressures have forced the Christians remaining in Iraq to come to terms with the depth of their faith and what it really means to them. It’s one thing when it’s the drip-drip-drip of 1,400 years of persecution. It’s another thing when you have a full-blown genocide that comes to wipe you out and take everything away. It has happened every 70 years or so, but this is the first time in their living memory, and it really shook them.

There are still Christians in Egypt. There are Christians in Lebanon. But when you look at Iraq, it’s hard to find hope given the current geopolitical and religious realities. Yet in the middle of disaster, nobody builds a university.

That’s right.

So what hope do you have? Projecting into the future, expecting God to strengthen and grow his church in Iraq, what will it look like?

That Christians present such an example of service that the people of Iraq will not be able to deny not only their worth as people but also their worth in how they live their lives.

If they understand that, then that’s all we get to ask for—anywhere. There may not be many Christians in Iraq. But as an old priest said once to me, “Well, remember Christ only had 12, and everyone wanted to kill them, too.”

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