Iraqi contradictions regarding religious freedom

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report on May 2, 2008 that listed 11 “countries of particular concern” which have allowed or participated in violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief.

Even while Iraq did not make the list this time, despite the recent murder of an archbishop, the report said the commission “remains seriously concerned about religious freedom conditions in Iraq.” Iraq was included on its 2007 watch list, however. It has since announced that commission members will the country later in May, make observations, and later issue a report and recommendations.

In an interview conducted by Mark O’Keefe of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, Pew senior researcher Brian Grim discussed the religious freedom conditions in Iraq and explains that sectarian violence, ambiguous legal protections for religious freedom, and other factors have contributed to a deteriorating situation for Christians and other religious minorities.

Christian communities pre-date Islam and go back to the very foundation of Christianity. Chaldean Catholics speak a neo-Aramaic tongue that is similar to the language thought to be used by Jesus Christ.

According to the interview, Pope Benedict XVI again broached the topic of the Iraqi Christians’ plight when he met privately with President George W. Bush on April 16. In response to questions, Grim said “Many experts consider the situation for Christians in Iraq as especially dire. According to Chaldean Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Andreos Abouna of Baghdad, their numbers may have been cut in half since 2003, to about 600,000. As documented by the U.S. State Department, Christians have been threatened with violence if they do not leave their homes, accosted on the streets and even assassinated, and their churches have been bombed or destroyed. Some Iraqi Christian leaders go so far as to describe the plight of Christians in Iraq as ethnic cleansing”

According to Grim, citing the US State Department, “Muslim extremists ‘warned Christians living in Baghdad’s Dora district to convert, leave or be killed.’ The report documented that many Christians have been driven out of these areas. The State Department also reported that “government policy and practices generally did not interfere with the free practice of religion.” But the report also said that the insurgency had adversely affected all religious believers and that “sectarian misappropriation of official authority within the security apparatus” had impeded religious freedom.

According to Grim, Christians are leaving Iraq rather than face death. “The majority of them are Chaldean Christians who have been affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, which may help to explain why Pope Benedict XVI is so concerned”. Iraqi Christians are going mostly to Jordan and Syria. Some are able to make it to the West.

Besides targeting Christians, sectarian violence has also been directed at Yazidis, who are considered heretics by Muslims, and Sabian Mandaeans – who are independent of Islam and Christianity. In the case of the latter, said Grim, while there were 60,000 Sabian Mandaeans in 2003, they now number 5000. Sectarian violence appears to be worst in areas where different faiths intermingle, according to Grim.

Grim said that the situation for Christians is much direr than while under Saddam. They could operate seminaries and schools, and Iraq had diplomatic relations with the Holy See. However, Christians tended to keep a low profile. Some were forced to relocate when they were accused of collaboration with the Kurds in anti-Saddam resistance in the 1990s.

Citing the Iraqi constitution, Grim said that religious freedom is at risk in Iraq. Even while Iraq’s basic document, like Afghanistan, contains guarantees of religious freedom, it appears to have a troubling internal contradiction. Article 2, of the Iraqi constitution states, said Grim, “No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established.” In addition, Article 89 establishes that membership in the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court will include experts in Islamic jurisprudence. Grim remarked, “Many people see this as a troubling contradiction.”