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Iraqi Christians cautious about new constitution

BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–The draft constitution Iraqis will vote on Oct. 15 resembles the buffet at your local cafeteria: There’s something for nearly every taste, but mixing it all together promises unpredictable results.

That goes double where religion is concerned, according to some analysts. Even if the constitution is adopted with strong guarantees of religious freedom for all, Iraqi Christians say, it won’t protect the rights of religious minorities unless majority Muslim groups respect those guarantees.

“The government cannot guarantee what the local community refuses to allow,” a spokesman for Iraqi evangelical Christians said in early September. “Society and the [Muslim] religious communities do not yet grant us freedom to worship as we see fit, but only within their context. Even if there are statements about freedom of worship in the constitution, the local community will interpret what is honorable worship and behavior.”

After weeks of bargaining and delays, Shiite and Kurdish political leaders bypassed objections from minority Sunni negotiators and formally presented the constitution to Iraq’s National Assembly Aug. 28. The assembly didn’t adopt it, however; that decision will be up to the people.

Because of the rush to draft the constitution, ongoing disputes over multiple issues and failure to get the Sunni Muslim minority fully on board during negotiations, “there is a good chance it will fail in the public referendum,” the Christian spokesman said. If voters ratify the document, Iraqi judges will have to interpret its mixed messages about religious freedom.

For example, the second sentence in the main body of the constitution’s latest draft states: “Islam is the official religion of the state and a basic source of legislation: No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam.”

However, the third sentence adds: “No law can be passed that contradicts the principles of democracy.”

By way of clarification, the fourth sentence asserts: “No law can be passed that contradicts the rights and basic freedoms outlined in this constitution” -– which contains no fewer than 138 articles. They detail a whole array of personal liberties, including freedom of worship “and the protection of its places” (mosques, churches, etc.), freedom of public expression, the right of assembly, the right to public protest, the right to organize political parties and freedom of the press.

The much-debated, partially boycotted constitutional draft “is neither a template for an Islamist state nor a blueprint for constitutional democracy,” observed Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, in an article posted Aug. 30 on ChristianityToday.com. “But depending on how the Iraqis handle it, it has elements that could be made to fit either.”

The document may be confusing, but it reflects the aspirations of many factions contending for influence in the new Iraq: democrats, authoritarians, Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, the Muslim majority and many religious minorities — including Christians of various stripes.

“The confusion and chaos of these days gives a wonderful contrast to the simple Gospel and fruit of the Spirit,” the spokesman said. “The future is uncertain. The outcome of the constitutional process is unsure. But we have this day to worship God and serve Him and our neighbors. For this God created us.

“Iraqis want to worship God. Most have never heard Christ’s teachings or of His life and passion, nor do they know a person who has decided to worship God in Christ and live a life submitted to Him. Most live in fear and need God’s love. Pray that we will be bold and find grace to serve all our countrymen in the present and the future.”

Considering the chaos and constant threats of death under which the constitutional drafters worked, Marshall and some other advocates of religious freedom cautiously admire what they have achieved. The Bush administration, which has pushed along the constitutional process from the beginning, congratulated the drafters and strongly supports the final document. Others warn the constitution as written could set the stage for an Iran-style Islamic theocracy in Iraq.

Many members of Iraq’s traditional Chaldean and Assyrian Christian communities already have voted with their feet –- leaving Iraq in the wake of social chaos and repeated attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shiite Muslim fundamentalists. About 750,000 Christians reportedly remain in Iraq, down from 1 million before the war.

Christian groups suffered under Saddam Hussein’s tyranny also, but they were often targeted because of their ethnic or political identification — not their religion.

“The dictator was uninterested in religion as long as it was apolitical and did not speak to social ills beyond its ethnic base,” said the Christian spokesman in Iraq. “Christian leaders are speaking to larger issues in Iraq these days” — and powerful forces aren’t happy about it.

Regardless of the outcome of the constitutional referendum, Iraqi believers anticipate both more — and less — opposition to Christianity. Despite its ancient roots in Iraq, the faith is now tied to “foreigners” and Western cultures by its opponents, which will make life for believers even more difficult. However, a “broader Christian expression is present in the country, and that will make opposition more difficult,” the spokesman explained. “Iraq under a government selected by the population will be more interested in world opinion than the Iraq led by a dictator.”

    About the Author

  • Erich Bridges