A Catholic charity launched a $1.8 million project helping Christian students on the eve of the historic papal visit to Iraq. 

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) announced on March 3 that it would donate 1.5 million euros to fund scholarships for 150 students at the Catholic University in Erbil (CUE) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. 

Archbishop Bashar Warda, who founded the university in December 2015, welcomed the pontifical foundation's announcement.

He said: "Without a doubt, the Catholic University of Erbil is a beacon of light and a symbol of hope, especially for the younger generation."

"Helping the CUE financially by means of scholarships will be an immense support, and this aid will not only benefit a limited number of young people, who are hoping for a better future, but at the same time it will be a powerful gesture of solidarity towards the Christians and all the other minorities and the disadvantaged in the region."

Most of the 170 students currently enrolled at CUE, the only Catholic university in the country, are refugees or internally displaced from other parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, Basra, Diala, Duhok, Kirkuk, Mosul, Sinjar, and Sulaimaniya. 

Warda, the 51-year-old Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil, would like to increase the number of students to 1,000 in the next four years.

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Aid to the Church in Need's International Executive President Thomas Heine-Geldern said: "We believe that this project will support the pope's message in favor of social cohesion and reconciliation." 

"The university is centered around diversity -- with 72% Christians, 10% Muslims and 18% Yazidis. Here young people of different creeds can learn to live together in harmony."

He continued: "The Catholic University of Erbil is a project of crucial importance for those Christians who wish to stay on in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, since it will help them to remain. The Christians would not think of abandoning their country if they did not feel obliged to do so by forces beyond their control." 

"If young Christians can be given an opportunity to gain a good education, then they will remain. ACN has already done everything possible to help the Christians to stay on in their native land, by investing in the reconstruction of their homes, their churches, and essential infrastructure." 

"Now is the time to initiate this major project, which is a very ambitious one for us, and invest in the young people of the country."

Pope Francis will become the first pope to visit the country on March 5-8. On his last evening in Iraq, he will offer Mass at the Franso Hariri Stadium in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. 

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The Mass is expected to be the largest gathering of Iraqi Catholics during his trip. A special identification card issued by the CUE will be required to enter the stadium.

Speaking at his general audience on March 3, Pope Francis said: "The Iraqi people are waiting for us; they awaited St. John Paul II, who was not permitted to go. One cannot disappoint a people for the second time. Let us pray that this journey will be a good one."

The university in Erbil offers a variety of degree-level subjects, including architecture and civil engineering. Fifty-four percent of the students are female and 46% male. 

Archbishop Warda said: "I have always deeply appreciated the work ACN has done for us over many years, and especially after ISIS. To have ACN as the first foundational core donor for the scholarship program is most appropriate and most welcome." 

"We need to bring good news to the people here during the papal visit; to be able to announce the vision to have 1,000 students by 2025, giving us a significant voice and a clear future for our young people and their parents, brings great hope."