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Some experts fear a Shiite theocracy following Sunday’s elections in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq (BP)–With Iraq’s first multi-party parliamentary election in 50 years scheduled to take place Sunday, Jan. 30, some experts, including a Southern Baptist seminary professor, worry that voters may elect a Shiite theocracy that would persecute Christians and enact Islamic law as legislative policy.

But Shiite leaders, who likely will capture a majority of the seats in Iraq’s parliament, attempted to assuage fears of a theocracy by insisting that the nation’s new government will be decidedly secular and relegate Islam to a supporting role, according to The New York Times.

The main source of opposition to the elections has come from Sunni Arabs, who make up approximately 20 percent of Iraq’s population. Sunnis worry that Shiites, who make up approximately 60 percent of Iraq’s population, will win the elections and dominate the Sunni minority.

Shiite Arabs in Iraq have long been dominated by the Sunni minority, particularly under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and the Shiites see elections as an opportunity to transform their majority status into political power for the first time. The Shiite-Sunni schism dates back to the death of Muhammad in 632 A.D., when some of his followers, now the Sunnis, embraced one of Muhammad’s trusted friends as their leader, while others, now the Shiites, turned to one of Muhammad’s relatives as their leader.

Senior leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance, the coalition of mostly Shiite groups that is poised to capture most of the votes, have combated the notion that strict religious Shiite Islamic domination will emerge from the elections, insisting that they will nominate a lay person as the country’s next prime minister and exclude Islamic clerics from running any of the government ministries, The Times reported.

“There will be no turbans in government,” Adnan Ali, a senior leader of the Dawa Party, one of the largest Shiite parties, told The Times. “Everyone agrees on that.”

Samuel Shahid, who teaches Islamic studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, warns however, that observers cannot be certain about the plans of Shiite leaders until after the elections.

“The Shiites of Iraq are claiming that they don’t want to have a religious government,” Shahid told Baptist Press. “… Whether they are sincere about this or not, nobody knows.

“They are trying to calm down the fears of the Sunnis as well as the ethnic groups by saying, ‘We are not going to have an Islamic government.'”

How the Shiites handle such issues as religious liberty and the implementation of democracy depends upon an ongoing struggle between conservatives and moderates within the sect, Shahid said.

Moderates “would like to have a civil law as long as they do not violate the Islamic law,” he said.

“Conservatives are not ready to accept anything written against some of the practices of the conservative system of Shiite law. They try to close newspapers and magazines. They arrest journalists and put them in jail. And they even persecute women that don’t follow the Islamic code. These are the things that we are going to see [if Iraq elects a Shiite theocracy].”

Should a Shiite theocracy emerge from the elections, it likely would be similar to the current government in Iran, a country dominated by Shiites, Shahid said.

In attempts to sway its neighbor toward Shiite rule, Iran has poured money, armed militia and secret agents into Iraq, Bush administration officials claim, according to National Public Radio.

Members of the Iraqi interim government say that a million Iranians have entered Iraq in attempts to skew the elections in favor of the Shiites, NPR reported.

Despite efforts by Iran, Shahid and other experts predict that Iraq’s government will have a more secular flavor than Iran’s.

“My guess is what you’re going to have in Iraq is not another Iran,” Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington told NPR. “But … you’ll have something different and … in the longer term, Iran may become more like Iraq, where you certainly will have clerical influence on government, but you won’t have clerical control over the government.”

Opposing the Shiites in Iraq has been a minority of Sunnis who call for a boycott of the elections in protest of potential Shiite rule. A small group of Sunnis, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has also carried out violent attacks in attempts to thwart the election process.

“We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it,” a speaker identified as al-Zarqawi said in an audiotape on the Internet.

“Those who vote … are infidels,” he said. “You have to be careful of the enemy’s plots that involve applying democracy in your country and confront these plots, because they only want to do so to … give the [Shiite] rejectionists the rule of Iraq.”

According to Larry Diamond, senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, violence and threats of a boycott by Sunnis could threaten the legitimacy of the elections and cause insurgencies to increase.

“If Sunni Arabs wind up constituting only 5 or 10 percent of the electorate, they will reject the legitimacy of the parliament just as they’ve rejected the legitimacy of the election itself,” Diamond told NPR. “It certainly will stimulate, entrench and probably inflame the insurgency. I think we will possibly see, if one can imagine it, even worse violence.”

To combat the possibilities of violence and radical Islamic domination in Iraq, Christians must pray for the elections to be peaceful and effective, Shahid said. Christians should also pray “that the church [in Iraq] will enjoy the freedom to worship and preach the Gospel,” he said.

“I hope that everything goes well and that Iraq will become a model for democracy for the entire Middle East,” he added.