A Profile in Courage: Countering ISIS Terrorism With Education

It's a sweltering summer Sunday in Baghdad, 2004. Chaldean Christians walking out of Mar Elia Church are stunned by the deafening blast of a car bomb smashing the air, the church, and human beings.

They don't know yet that Mar Elia is one of six Christian churches to be bombed at that moment in coordinated attacks in Baghdad and Mosul, as worshipers leave evening services.

12 dead. 71 wounded. Wounded physically, that is. Of course all the survivors are wounded. Welcome to Iraq.


Whatever you think of the 2003 invasion, it certainly brought waves of sectarian strife. Persecutions and reprisals. Unspeakable horrors for all Iraqis, but especially for minority groups like the Christians, Yezidis, and Sunnis. You know the story.

But last month in Northern Iraq, when I met Bashar Warda, the Chaldean Archbishop of Erbil, I learned a new reason for hope.

Back in 2004, Warda was the parish priest of Mar Elia. It was his job to lead a community brutalized by murderers. A community that only yesterday had a church, now had a mess of rubble. How would they respond? I don't know what I would have done in his shoes. But his reaction was to rebuild the church, yes, and at the same time to build a school that would include Muslims in the neighborhood. He reasoned that if his Muslim neighbors had valued Mar Elia, they might have prevented the car bomb plot.

The restored church opened six months later, and the new school soon after. The school was desperately needed, and of about 600 students, more than 90 percent are Muslim. There have been no attacks on Mar Elia since.

I was in Iraq to learn about the plight of religious minorities fleeing ISIS. I visited some camps, and the former headmaster in me raised questions about the children's education. The UN says that refugees and displaced persons in such camps stay there an average of 17 years. How can we avoid losing a generation?

The answer, of course, is education. The surprise, to me, was how effectively somebody was doing something about it.

Archbishop Warda told me the first thing that people would need to recover from ISIS after Mosul is retaken would be schools. They are brutalized by violence and extreme ideology. What they need for reconciliation is a humane education.

He mentioned offhand in one of our late night meetings that he had taught seven hours that day. Half that many would have exhausted me.

He wanted to show me some of his educational projects, so asked if he could pick me up at my hotel early before my morning meetings. If you don't know the "pope is his driver" joke, Google it. I had an archbishop for my driver.

After becoming Archbishop, Warda opened Mar Qadakh School, which has recently earned International Baccalaureate certification (extraordinary even for an American school). I've visited many schools, talked with multitudes of teachers and students, and was struck by the fact that here I was standing in such an obviously fine school less than 30 miles from ISIS lines. Minutes later, I visited his newly built Catholic University in Erbil, which opened for its first classes a few days after I left.

Warda claims that the centuries of peace his people enjoyed with Arabs and Kurds had much to do with the fact that Christians were renowned for their schools and hospitals. They educated and healed their Muslim neighbors, and this fostered mutual understanding and appreciation that was the foundation of peace.

This explains his extraordinary efforts to reach out to the Muslims he is surrounded by, both Shia and Sunni. He participates in their religious and social events, promotes dialogue among them, conducts student exchange programs, publishes books that explain Christianity to Muslims, and builds schools left and right (including a school where every student has lost a home to ISIS) -- and welcomes Muslims into his schools.

This educational entrepreneur has the right idea. And he's a savvy operator who understands how to get things done. (For example, he recently opened a US based non-profit to accept 501(c)3 donations to support his university and schools.)

I never asked Archbishop Warda about the Archbishop of Mosul murdered not far from where we met. But Warda's unblinking effort to promote learning and mutual understanding not just in his own flock but among his Muslim neighbors is an example we should all be proud to follow if we can only summon the courage, the wisdom, and the love to do it.