BY SIMON CALDWELL
CHRISTIANITY could be completely wiped out in Iraq if the country’s new constitution is based on Islamic religious law, it was claimed this week.
Catholic leaders in the United States joined forces with human rights groups to urge western governments to put Iraqi leaders under pressure to reject a constitution based on the Sharia.
They fear that Iraq is on the verge of becoming a fundamentalist Islamic state in which non-Muslims and women will face discrimination.
Already Sharia principles, derived from the Koran and the life and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, are being enforced in the south of the country. Women are being forced to wear the veil and in some cases barbers have been attacked, and even killed, for cutting men’s beards.
Christian groups in Britain say that Iraq’s 650,000 Christians would be given “Dhimmi” status if Sharia law was enforced, making them second-class citizens.
It could mean they will have to pay special taxes, will not be allowed to give evidence against Muslims in court, and face restrictions on their rights to buy and hold property. Christians would also be excluded from the highest offices in the government, the military and the judiciary. Their rights to educate their children in the faith and to establish schools, hospitals and charitable agencies would also be placed in jeopardy.
Neville Kyrke-Smith, UK director of Aid to the Church, a charity set up to help persecuted Christians, said the adoption of Islamic tenets in the constitution would lead to an exodus of Christians from the country. “If the constitution is not drafted to protect minority religions it could wipe out the faith entirely from Iraq,” he said. “The ultimate fear is that any imposition of Sharia law will either lead to religious extremism or see the fragmentation of Iraq along religious and ethnic lines.” The interim Iraqi government failed to meet Monday’s deadline to agree the constitution and extended it to August 22. The two major stumbling blocks are the degree of autonomy given to the Kurds in the north and the Shias in the south, and the role of Islam within the Iraqi constitution.
Debate raged over whether Islam should be just one of a number of sources of law, if it should be the first and predominant source of law, or whether it should be omitted as a source of law, guaranteeing Iraq’s future as a secular state, as it had been under Saddam Hussein.
Politicians also argued over the enforcement of the Sharia’s specifically religious provisions and if the country should be re-named the Islamic Republic of Iraq. Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of the Barnabas Fund, a charity which supports persecuted Christians in Muslim countries, said the British and American governments had failed to recognise the existence of the Christian minorities in Iraq and to include them in the drafting of the constitution. “I personally believe that the British and American governments have been negligent in not remembering, or looking after, the interests of Christian minorities,” he said. “Iraq must continue to be a secular state in which all minorities and all religions are given equal status. I think that is the issue affecting Christians. That’s what they want to see happen and sadly their concerns are not being taken into account.” As Iraqi politicians met to discuss the constitution, the American Catholic bishops issued a direct appeal to the US government not to abandon Iraq’s Christian community.
Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, the bishops’ spokesman on international affairs, wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser to President George W Bush, asking them to “make every diplomatic effort to encourage Iraqi leaders to adopt full religious freedom in their new constitution”.
“If the constitution law grants only group rights, it could open the possibility that the rights of individuals could be suppressed based on their religious beliefs or practices,” the bishop wrote. Anew constitution should respect “the fact that Islam is the religion of the majority of Iraqis, while ensuring full religious freedom for all” he said.
“Religious freedom also entails related freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association.” Bishop Ricard added that guaranteeing religious freedom “would contribute to stability and help avoid sectarian conflict”. He said: “Without guarantees of religious free dom, the ability of minority religious bodies to bridge sectarian divisions and contribute to the rebirth of a democratic and prosperous Iraq could be undermined. If Islam is the official religion of the state, however, or if Islam is the sole source for secular laws, the religious freedom of minorities could be seriously circumscribed.” More than 90 per cent of the Iraqi population is Muslim. Catholics form one per cent of the 25.3 million population, most of them belonging to the Chaldean or Assyrian rites.
Although Iraq’s Christian leaders have been excluded from writing the draft constitution, they have nevertheless made their views clear to the country’s leaders that they want a constitutional separation of religion from politics.
Ten Chaldean, Orthodox, Syriac, Armenian and Evanglical leaders said in a letter last month that they feared discrimination if the constitution enshrines the Sharia.
“We are only asking for equality, freedom and equal opportunities and [prevention of] racial, religious and denominational discrimination,” they said in the letter to Iraqi interim President Jalal Talabani, Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, and United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Auxiliary Andreas Abouna of Baghdad visited London immediately after the letter was posted and asked for a meeting with Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor in an attempt to make the views of the Iraqi bishops known to the British Government.
Once the draft constitution is agreed it will be sent for further revision to a sub-committee of the Iraqi Assembly. The Iraq government has promised that the constitution will be put to a referendum before it is ratified.