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In September 2021, the Archdiocese of Irbil and the U.S.-based Chesterton Schools Network will launch St. Thomas Chesterton Academy, a classical Christian secondary education track for students at Mar Qardakh School in Irbil, Iraq. (CNS photo/courtesy Archdiocese of Irbil)

Catholic education is taking another step forward in Irbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region, affirming the country's historical leadership role in academia.

In the fall, Mar Qardakh School, a kindergarten through ninth grade Catholic institution, will open a high school, the Chesterton Academy of St. Thomas the Apostle, in the northern Iraq city.

Named for G.K. Chesterton, the renowned early 20th century English writer, philosopher and lay theologian who became Catholic, Chesterton schools employ the classical approach to education, emphasizing history, language studies and literature.

The academy is one of several initiatives established under Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil to help Christians remain in Iraq. The Christian presence dates to apostolic times. In 2003, there were 1.5 million Christians in Iraq, but today observers estimate about 250,000 remain.

In summer 2014, more than 120,000 Iraqi Christians were uprooted from their homes in Mosul and the Ninevah Plain by Islamic State militants and sought refuge in the Irbil Archdiocese. The archdiocese coordinated emergency aid, housing, education and pastoral care for the displaced families.

The academy is one of several initiatives established under Chaldean Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil to help Christians remain in Iraq.

Aside from Mar Qardakh School, which is internationally accredited, Archbishop Warda has established three other schools. In 2015, he founded the Catholic University of Erbil. He most recently established Maryamana Hospital, also in Irbil. The institutions serve people of all faith traditions and cultures.

"Education is the key to building bridges of peace, reconciliation and coexistence, especially in the Middle East," Archbishop Warda told Catholic News Service.

In developing the academy, Archbishop Warda invited a delegation from the U.S.-based Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton to Irbil to see the education work already underway. The society's mission is to promote Catholic education, evangelization, and the church's social teaching.

The visit originally was scheduled for February 2020 but was postponed to coincide with Pope Francis' pastoral visit to Iraq this past March.

Andrew Youngblood, director of curriculum for the Chesterton Schools Network, said Archbishop Warda welcomed the society's team to Iraq three days before the pope's March 5 arrival.

"Over the next few days, we were able to tour schools, the hospital, and the university that the archbishop has created," Youngblood told CNS. "We heard the stories about the internally displaced people that arrived in Irbil in 2014, whom he helped organize into camps and then quickly moved into housing so that they had greater safety and dignity.

"We saw the sustainable world that he is creating to provide these people health care, education and jobs. He truly is a shepherd who cares for his flock," Youngblood added.

To the delegation's surprise, Kurdish officials approved the Chesterton Academy within 24 hours.

"Much of the goodwill we experienced is attributable to the respect people have for the archbishop and to the excitement people had because of the papal visit," Youngblood said.

But Youngblood also felt there was "an overwhelming amount of grace involved" leading to the academy's development, the network's first in the Middle East.

The first Chesterton Academy opened in 2007 in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota. The network now has 30 schools. Officials are aiming for 150 schools within a decade.

"My vision is to create an environment where students are empowered to acquire and value knowledge and skills to support them through different aspects of their lives," said Hala Warda, headmistress of Mar Qardakh School. She is not related to the archbishop.

"My hope is to raise students who are lifelong learners, who can contribute to their local as well as global communities," Hala Warda said.

There is a strong U.S. connection as well among the archbishop, Hala Warda and a Franciscan-run university in Ohio.

On May 15, Hala Warda received two master's degrees from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, one in business administration and another in science in education administration.

Archbishop Warda was on campus the same day to receive an honorary doctorate degree for his advocacy and outstanding service to Iraqis suffering from persecution, terrorism and unrest during the country's recent tumultuous past.

For the archbishop, the bond with the university had been established earlier. In 2019, for example, he and the university's president, Franciscan Father David Pivonka, signed a memorandum of understanding that includes cultural exchanges and the development of programs between the Catholic University of Erbil and Franciscan University of Steubenville.

"My hope is to raise students who are lifelong learners, who can contribute to their local as well as global communities," Hala Warda said.

That bond was strengthened when Father Pivonka led a university delegation to Irbil, joining the Chesterton society team.

"The archbishop realizes the importance of making progress in education," Hala Warda said. "Thanks to his efforts, Christian families have greater hope for a bright future for their children."

Further, she said, the pope's visit "brought so much attention to our Christian communities in Iraq."

"It was very emotional for our people to realize that they are not forgotten by their Christian brothers and sisters," Hala Warda told CNS. "Chesterton Academy's collaboration with Mar Qardakh School will serve as another example that we are not forgotten, and there are efforts to help us get back on our feet and become an integral part of our society once again."

Most Mar Qardakh students come from low-income households and many of them attend school tuition-free.

"We greatly depend on contributions from generous individuals and organizations to maintain our educational work," she said.

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Editor's Note: Information about donating to Mar Qardakh School through St. Thomas Mission is online at stmiraq.org.

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