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Iraqi interim constitution gives Islam ‘official’ status, voices freedom guarantees

WASHINGTON (BP)–At least five of the 63 articles in Iraq’s interim constitution signed March 8 in Baghdad contain statements of religious freedom.

The document –- divided into nine “chapters” spanning nearly 8,700 words in its English-language translation — was signed after Shiite representatives on the nation’s 25-member Governing Council announced they would put aside, for now, various protestations.

“We’ve decided to sign the constitution and resolve the problems in it later,” a representative of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq said, according to a New York Times report.

The first of the nine chapters of the interim constitution addresses “Fundamental Principles,” including one article that designates Islam as “the official religion of the State”; the second chapter addresses “Fundamental Rights.” The document is formally titled, “Law of Administration for the State of Iraq for the Transitional Period.”

Among non-Muslim Iraqis hopeful for religious freedom are a fledgling Baptist movement and other emerging evangelical congregations.

The interim constitution begins with a three-paragraph preamble, which states:

“The people of Iraq, striving to reclaim their freedom, which was usurped by the previous tyrannical regime, rejecting violence and coercion in all their forms, and particularly when used as instruments of governance, have determined that they shall hereafter remain a free people governed under the rule of law.

“These people, affirming today their respect for international law, especially having been amongst the founders of the United Nations, working to reclaim their legitimate place among nations, have endeavored at the same time to preserve the unity of their homeland in a spirit of fraternity and solidarity in order to draw the features of the future new Iraq, and to establish the mechanisms aiming, amongst other aims, to erase the effects of racist and sectarian policies and practices.

“This Law is now established to govern the affairs of Iraq during the transitional period until a duly elected government, operating under a permanent and legitimate constitution achieving full democracy, shall come into being.”

Foremost among the articles addressing religion is Article 7, part A, which concludes with a reference to religious freedom for all Iraqis.

The article declares that “Islam is the official religion of the State and is to be considered a source of legislation. No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam, the principles of democracy, or the rights cited in Chapter Two of this Law may be enacted during the transitional period. This Law respects the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.”

Article 3 addresses various factors that would prohibit amendments to the law, including any amendment that would “affect Islam, or any other religions or sects and their rites.”

Article 12, under the chapter on fundamental rights, notes: “All Iraqis are equal in their rights without regard to gender, sect, opinion, belief, nationality, religion, or origin, and they are equal before the law. Discrimination against an Iraqi citizen on the basis of his gender, nationality, religion, or origin is prohibited….”

Article 13 asserts, “Public and private freedoms shall be protected,” including: “Each Iraqi has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice. Coercion in such matters shall be prohibited.”

Article 20, on voting, states: “No Iraqi may be discriminated against for purposes of voting in elections on the basis of gender, religion, sect, race, belief, ethnic origin, language, wealth, or literacy.”

The law calls for a 275-member Iraqi National Assembly to be elected by Dec. 31 of this year if possible and “no later than” Jan. 31, 2005, and for the assembly to complete a draft of a permanent constitution by Aug. 15, 2005.

Although various terrorist bombing attacks had punctuated the Governing Council’s deliberations, President Bush noted in his national radio address March 6, “Immediately after the attacks, the world saw members of Iraq’s Governing Council and other Iraqis quickly condemn the bombings and voice their determination that their country will be peaceful and free. The Iraqi people refuse to live in fear, and so do the members of our coalition. Fighting alongside the people of Iraq, we will defeat the terrorists who seek to plunge Iraq into chaos and violence, and we will stand with the people of Iraq for as long as necessary to build a stable, peaceful and successful democracy.”

In an apparent reference to the last-minute Shiite protestations of the interim constitution, Bush said, “Members of the Governing Council are having a free and open and spirited debate as they complete a new framework for governing their nation.”

The president stated that the interim constitution “will result in protecting the rights of all Iraqis and will move the country toward a democratic future.”

“A year ago, Iraq’s only law was the whim of one brutal man,” Bush said. “When the new law takes effect, Iraqis will, for the first time in decades, live under the clear protections of a written bill of rights. Under this law, all Iraqis will be treated equally. No religious or ethnic groups will be favored, and none will suffer discrimination at the hands of the state. The law will protect the rights of free speech and peaceful assembly, the right to organize political parties, the right to vote in fair elections, and the right to worship according to one’s own conscience.”