Baghdad’s Open University: a project of hope for Iraq
The Baghdad Open University project is an initiative of the Dominican Fathers in Baghdad. They saw the need to create a place for freedom, dialogue and study – in a country laid waste by tyranny and war, where few good educational opportunities exist for a traumatised younger generation with little to look forward to.
While the Dominican Fathers have been present in Iraq since as far back as the 18th century, they only became established in Baghdad in 1966. Since that time they have been running a highly respected educational mission (teaching, publication of various books including for children, commentaries, etc.) and, of course, religious instruction and theological training at the Theological Centre.
However, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, they have not been able to carry out the latter two sections of their religious teaching openly, since the government was not organised to provide protection for the Christian minority in a way that would allow its members to continue to regard themselves as ordinary citizens of the country. In fact, the very existence of the Christian community is under threat, and is already economically stifled, socially marginalised and forced to conduct their services of worship in secret. Many of its members are therefore resigned to the painful prospect of exile.
It is under these conditions that the Dominican Fathers decided to adapt themselves – rather than give up – by directing their teaching towards a secular educational project designed to contribute to the rebuilding of their country by appealing to people’s minds –minds that have been oppressed by thirty years of dictatorship, minds accustomed to the absence of information or culture and to a whole decade of war, division, intercommunity hatred and terrorism.
Culture and human development in Iraq today can no longer be envisaged or promoted along traditional lines, so greatly have divisions, unrest and available resources rendered such methods obsolete. It was therefore necessary to find the courage to try an alternative approach, to dream up a place for freedom, dialogue and study as a foundation for knowledge dissemination and personal reflection.
In April 2008 the Dominican Fathers in Baghdad therefore took the bold decision to launch a study centre focusing on the status of the human being in society, with reliance on human sciences that are traditionally shunned in this region of the world, including philosophy as the common ground of the two major civilisations present on the same territory.
Sheltered in the heart of Baghdad, more than 30% of the Open University has now been built on a site located in the city centre and shared with the Dominican Sisters who run a school there. This land, donated to the Open University, has a surface area of 1700 m². The study centre is already receiving students on the school’s premises pending completion of the first of its own classrooms. There are up to 150 students, both young and mature, men and women, coming from all communities. That is an extraordinary achievement in the eyes of anyone who knows the situation in Baghdad.
There is still construction work to be done on the building itself (classrooms and lecture theatres) and, once this is completed, the necessary furnishings and equipment will still need to be bought and installed. This is necessary to make possible not only the teaching of the curriculum courses but also the publication of many documents, the preparation and printing of books and commentaries, and also language teaching.
Coming out of the cloisters of the Church to establish dialogue with every layer of Iraqi society constitutes the essence of the Open University project. This work has brought the Dominican Fathers into close and sensitive contact with every layer of Iraqi society. Today this work is being allowed to develop further in a climate of freedom now that censorship has been lifted. It is also desperately needed to help curb any tendencies towards radicalisation and fanaticism.
From every side, people want to get Iraq out of the rut in which it is still stuck. Attempts to set up decisive dialogue have been successful since the beginnings of this project: from the outset, it has received strong encouragement from government bodies both inside Iraq and from the diaspora abroad.
Whereas 25 years ago, 50% of all the Christian students were non-Catholics, today 60% of the students enrolled in the Open University are not even Christian. This demonstrates the openness of this young university which Fr Yousif Mirkis insists must uphold two fundamental standards: freedom, which is necessary for its openness, and quality, which will ensure that it endures.
Fr. Amir Jaje OP
Provincial Vicar of the Vicariate Mission to the Arab World
Head of the Dominican Fathers at Baghdad
Translated from the Original French
If you would like to support this project or sponsor any students, please contact Fr Jaje at firstname.lastname@example.org