Children pose for photos in front of a Christmas display in Sulaimani. Photo: Sartip Othman/AFP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s ministry of religious affairs lashed out at a fatwa made by Iraq’s top Muslim cleric banning Islamic faithful from celebrating the New Year or sharing in Christmas cheer.
“Such wrong points of view are similar to those of barbaric ISIS,” the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs announced in a statement on Saturday, calling for legal action against the cleric.
Sheikh Abdul-Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, a prominent Sunni religious figure and the mufti of Iraq, said on Friday that it is haram (forbidden) for Muslims to participate in New Year celebrations.
Also, “do not join Christians in Christmas celebrations, because this means that you believe in their doctrine,” Sumaidaie said in his Friday sermon at a mosque in downtown Baghdad.
The KRG’s ministry said Sumaidaie’s comments are contrary to the teachings of Islam and a culture of co-existence.
“Every year some odd voices are heard who, instead of calling for co-existence and respect for the followers of Christianity, attack the holidays of Christian citizens, using many hurtful phrases, something which is contrary to the spirit and content of the sacred Islam religion,” the ministry stated.
The cleric’s fatwa is also in contradiction to the public stance of the Iraqi government, which for the first time this year declared Christmas day a public holiday for all Iraqis across the country.
And just days before the cleric’s sermon, Iraq’s political leaders warmly welcomed the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to Baghdad.
The patriarch of the Chaldean Church Cardinal Louis Raphael I Sako denounced Sumaidaie’s statements.
“These are misconceptions, misguided and far from the correct knowledge of religions,” he said. “Our peoples today need to deepen the common denominators in order to contribute to the achievement of coexistence, not treachery, atonement and incitement to hatred.”
Christians have millennia of history in Iraq, though their numbers have fallen dramatically in recent years – many have moved abroad because of persecution.
The Iraqi constitution names Islam as the official religion of the state, but it also enshrines the right to freedom of religion: “This Constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights to freedom of religious belief and practice of all individuals such as Christians, Yazidis, and Mandean Sabeans.”
There are calls for Sumaidaie’s removal.
Yazda, an organization formed to advocate for the rights of Yezidis after the ISIS genocide, said Sumaidaie should be removed as grand mufti “after issuing an unwise and discriminatory statement.”
“We believe that tolerance should be the framework of [the] post-ISIS stage for Iraq to build peaceful communities where all people live together in harmony. All prejudice, explicit or implicit, should be prohibited by law at this critical time for Iraq’s future,” it added.
The blogger Mosul Eye who began documenting life under ISIS in Mosul said that those who propagate such beliefs “carry ISIS in their minds” and urged all Iraqis to stand against attempts to destroy the country’s diverse society.