STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — During a recent visit with the Catholic community in Iraq, Franciscan Father Dave Pivonka, president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, said he and his university colleagues saw firsthand how strong the Catholic faith is in that country, even after decades of strife and violence, and how it is reemerging.

At the invitation of Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Bashar Warda of Irbil, Pivonka and other university officials traveled to Iraq while Pope Francis made his March 5-8 pastoral visit to the country. The university delegation spent seven days there.

In 2019, the archbishop and Pivonka signed a “memorandum of understanding” that includes cultural exchanges and the development of programs between the Catholic University of Irbil and Franciscan University.

Warda will preside at the Ohio Catholic university’s baccalaureate Mass May 14 and receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters at commencement ceremonies May 15.

“Pope Francis proclaimed Christ as the way to reconciliation, the way to peace. His message was hope will defeat hate,” Pivonka said March 16.

The priest was joined by Daniel Kempton, vice president for academic affairs at Franciscan University, and Tiffany Boury, director of the university’s Catholic leadership master’s degree program.

Boury is organizing high school exchange programs between the U.S. and Iraq and will see three Irbil students graduate in May 2021 from the master’s program.

A highlight of the university group’s trip was attending the public Mass that Pope Francis celebrated March 7 at Franso Hariri Stadium in Irbil.

Pivonka said while he has seen the past three popes on several occasions, there was “something profoundly different” about Pope Francis’s apostolic visit to a country that has suffered from nearly continuous civil war since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The group also visited local Catholic schools, including the Catholic University of Irbil, a seminary, museum and a monastery that dates back to the fourth century, and met with Christian refugees.

“There’s not a family I met who didn’t lose loved ones, have their church destroyed,” said Pivonka. “I’ve never been so proud to be a Catholic and to witness the Holy Father so bravely visit his people in need.”

The Catholic University of Irbil, established in 2015, provides “a safe haven for Iraq’s Christian community to receive an education consistent with their values, traditions and beliefs,” Kempton said.

“It will also provide an academically excellent education for non-Christians, who will hopefully develop from their experience an appreciation of the richness and quality of Catholic education,” he added.

The university is establishing a human rights and religious freedom observatory — made possible with funding from the Knights of Columbus — that will make use of high-tech mapping to document atrocities and create an alert system to help prevent future genocides in Iraq.