Christians Concerned that Iraqi Constitution Lacks Religious Tolerance

The bishops' conference expressed a grave concern and fear...about Article 2.1(a). This opens the door widely to passing laws that are unjust towards non-Muslims.

Since the Iraq draft constitution was finalized on Sunday Sept. 18, Christian leaders have expressed deep concern about the threat to religious tolerance that could emerge upon the adoption of the constitution in October.

Prior to the passage of the draft constitution by the Iraqi parliament last Sunday, the patriarch of Baghdad for the Chaldeans had a meeting with the president and prime minister of Iraq on behalf of the Iraqi Bishops’ Conference to make a last-minute call on the change of the draft constitution, according to a report by the Catholic News Service (CNS).

"The bishops' conference expressed a grave concern and fear … about Article 2.1(a). This opens the door widely to passing laws that are unjust towards non-Muslims. The conference insists that this clause be amended or deleted," said a statement agreed by the country’s 12 bishops and presented to the Iraqi top officials on Sunday’s meeting. The statement was made public on Monday.

The controversy over the draft constitution lies on Article 2.1(a), which states "no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam." According to CNS, Christian leaders fear it will inevitably lead to the country to being governed by Shariah, or Islamic law, and therefore threatens the tolerance towards non-Muslim religions.

CNS reported opponents of the draft constitution argued that the rights of religious minorities are protected under Article 2.2 as it "guarantees the Islamic identity of the Iraqi people and guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice, such as Christians."

Nevertheless, Christian leaders doubted whether majority Muslim groups would respect those guarantees, according to a recent report by the Baptist Press.

"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."

Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Andraos Abouna of Baghdad was quoted by CNS as saying, "We are definitely not against the fact that in Iraq Islam is the religion of the state. We know that the majority in Iraq is Muslim, but the problem is that the constitution is not clear."

The unclear draft constitution has drawn international awareness. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster and the Head of the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales, wrote a letter to the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in early September, pleading for his intervention to remove the controversial article in the constitution, CNS reported.

However, Straw appeared to disagree with the concern of Christian leaders as he replied in a letter obtained by CNS dated Sept. 13.

In the letter, Straw said "provisions included in the document [constitution] ensured that all Iraqis would be equal under the law."

In addition, Straw wrote, "In other draft language, the constitution further recognizes Iraq's diversity by prohibiting discrimination on racist, ethnic, religious or any other grounds and ensures the protection of minority languages."

"Article 14 makes clear that 'Iraqis are equal before the law without discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, origin, color, religion, sect, belief or opinion, or economic and social status,'" the letter read.

The draft constitution will be put to the vote by the Iraqi public in a national referendum Oct. 15. Currently, the text has been given to the United Nations, which will print 5 million copies that will be distributed to Iraqis by this weekend so that voters can make informed decision, according to the Associated Press.

A spokesman for Iraqi evangelical Christians told the Baptist Press, "There is a good chance it will fail in the public referendum."

It is mainly 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, the Christian spokesman said.

If voters ratify the document, Iraqi judges will have to interpret its mixed messages about religious freedom, he added.