WASHINGTON (CNS) — Ethiopian church leaders are hoping education can help fight some cultural traditions, such as female circumcision and beliefs that epileptic children are possessed.

They also hope that by building schools close to villages, parents will feel more secure sending girls to classes, because the proximity will make them less vulnerable to rape and kidnapping.

“We feel through education only we can make a difference … in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa,” Ethiopian Archbishop Berhaneyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa told Catholic News Service in late October. “Education is the key, we feel, for development and peace.”

Archbishop Souraphiel, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference of Ethiopia and Eritrea, and Vincentian Father Hagos Hayish, secretary-general of the conference, traveled to the U.S. in late October seeking funding for construction of their new Catholic university. The Ethiopian Catholic University of St. Thomas Aquinas currently operates in rental property, but the government has donated land for its construction in Addis Ababa.

The university is the first Catholic institution of higher education in Ethiopia — although Canadian Jesuits started a state university in the capital, and Italian Combonis started a university in Asmara, Eritrea.

The church already has a network of Catholic schools, from kindergarten through high school. Father Hayish said church leaders often hear from parents that they want their children in Catholic schools for “the moral education.” But, as in other developing countries, education also has been a way to influence leaders — including cultural leaders.

He spoke of a situation in remote areas in western Ethiopia where women are forced to go into the forest to give birth. That region also has a large number of children with epilepsy, and church officials have begun to wonder if the neurological disorders are being caused at birth.

Children with epilepsy are seen as possessed, so they are forced to live away from their families, on the street. The situation is complicated and access is limited, and “it is overwhelming,” Father Hayish said.

“This is the situation (about which) the church is speaking up and trying to change, but when we have a university,” Father Hayish said, his voice trailing off. “To change that kind of culture, you need to provide education.”

He said that, at the university level, the “human integral development” is key “while we are doing intellectual and spiritual formation.”

The Ethiopian government requires that 70 percent of college offerings focus on science, engineering and medicine, and 30 percent on social sciences. Currently, the university offers courses in social work and medical and information technology. The first phase of construction — the school of technology and medicine — should be completed next year.

Archbishop Souraphiel said because of the focus on science and technology, philosophy and ethics classes might be integrated into other curriculums, but they would be included to help keep the Catholic identity.

The archbishop, too, spoke of the influence schools can have on cultural traditions. He said that in addition to teaching the girls that female circumcision — often call female genital mutilation — “is not necessary,” church leaders from schools in the rural areas can also talk to their grandmothers or the traditional birth attendants, who often do the ritual circumcisions as the girls get older.

He said that throughout the country, higher education classes are conducted in English, so Catholic-run schools — open to all — begin teaching English at an early age. The schools also form the students ethically, he said.

The university, too, will accept all students, “as long as they qualify on entrance exams.”

The archbishop said he was confident the university would influence the entire Horn of Africa. Somalis and Eritreans — even refugees — can attend college for free in Ethiopia, he said.

He said the church also is inviting religious sisters who work in rural areas to study at the university. Besides increasing their education, he said, he hopes other students will see that these women are making a difference within Ethiopia, not just taking classes to increase their salaries.