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Iraq Constitution Committee Determined to Reach Agreement Amid Concerns

While Iraqi leaders met the Aug. 22 deadline, the vote on the Iraq’s first post-Saddam draft constitution was put off and the Parliament adjourned in a bid for three more days.

Iraq Constitution Committee Determined to Reach Agreement Amid Concerns

The committee drafting Iraq’s new constitution presented its first draft to parliament Monday, minutes before its midnight deadline.

But while Iraqi leaders met the Aug. 22 deadline, the vote on the Iraq’s first post-Saddam draft constitution was put off and the Parliament adjourned in a bid for three more days to win over the Sunni Arab minority whose support is key to stopping the insurgency.

"Few issues remain to be settled and will be dealt with within three days," said Parliament speaker Hajim al-Hasani, according to Agence-France Presse.

"There is a determination to reach an agreement on all points ... All parties will work within the next three days to reach an agreement. We will meet in three days to finalize this issue."

After missing the previous Aug. 15 deadline, Iraqi leaders were pressed by the United States to agree on the draft before the new deadline in hopes that its approval would help stem the raging insurgency and pave the way for a withdrawal of foreign troops.

"Iraq's leaders are once again defying the terrorists and pessimists by completing work on a democratic constitution," President Bush said in a speech to 15,000 war veterans on Monday. “The establishment of a democratic constitution will be a landmark event in the history of Iraq and the history of the Middle East.

"All of Iraq's main ethnic and religious groups are working together on this vital project. All made the courageous choice to join the political process. And together they will produce a constitution that reflects the values and traditions of the Iraqi people," he said.

Bush noted that producing a constitution “is a difficult process that involves debate and compromise.”

“We know this from our own history,” he said. “The Constitutional Convention was home to political rivalries and regional disagreements.”

"So Americans understand the challenge facing the framers of Iraq's new constitution. We admire their thoughtful deliberations. We salute their determination to lay the foundation for lasting democracies amid the ruins of a brutal dictatorship," said the president.

In comments made to CNN, U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad described the draft constitution as "very enlightened" and "a huge step forward" after it was presented to Iraq's parliament.

However, in commenting on the role of Islam in the draft, Khalilzad downplayed the issue that has raised concerns in the United States and among religious freedom advocates.

"What the text says is that Islam is not the source, but a source of laws” the ambassador said, according to AFP.

Khalilzad did note, however, that the text states “that no law can be against the provisions of Islam” – language that Christians and religious freedom advocates fear could open the door to a strongly Islamic style of governance in the future.

According to the U.K.-based Barnabas Fund, some church leaders are fearful that if Islamic law is given a position in the constitution, Christians and other non-Muslims will face the same kind of discrimination and second-class status which they experience in other countries where the law is based on Islamic law, or Shari’a.

There are concerns that a greater role for Islam in civil law could erode women's rights in such matters as marriage, divorce and inheritance. In addition, some Christians say a pro-Shari’a constitution could lead to discrimination and result in such a massive exodus of Christians from Iraq that the Christian presence could all but disappear.

Last year, Iraqi government and church officials estimated that 30,000 to 40,000 Christians had fled the country after a string of church bombings in August and September.

“It is so crucial that the Christian community have freedom to worship and a voice under the new Constitiution,” stated Open Doors USA President Dr. Carl A. Moeller. “If Christians are marginalized even more, there could be another mass exodus from the country."

In neighboring Iran, which became an Islamic republic in 1979, groups such as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report that the government’s monopoly on and enforcement of the official interpretation of Islam negatively affect the human rights of women in Iran, including their right to freedoms of movement, association, thought, conscience, and religion, and freedom from coercion in matters of religion or belief. The Iranian justice system does not grant women the same legal status as men; for example, testimony by a man is equivalent to the testimony of two women.

The Constitution of Iran formally recognizes Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians as protected religious minorities who may worship freely and have autonomy over their own matters of personal status (e.g. marriage, divorce, and inheritance). However, members of these groups are subject to legal and other forms of discrimination, particularly in education, government jobs and services, and the armed services. Non-Muslims may not engage in public religious expression and persuasion among Muslims; some also face restrictions on publishing religious material.

“The United States and the international community must redouble their efforts to ensure that an Iran-like theocratic state is not established in Iraq,” stated Preeta D. Bansal and Nina Shea of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom.

“Iraq's new democracy will be crippled from the outset if the drafts of the country's permanent constitution being circulated are any indication of where things are headed,” they stated in written report.

According to Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, “An Iraqi Constitution that does not protect religious liberty will seriously undermine U.S. efforts in Iraq and the larger Middle East.”

“The sons and daughters of Americans are not risking their lives to establish a theocratic government that denies its citizens the fundamental right of religious freedom,” Perkins said in statement.

The FRC head reported last week that he had “sent a letter to President Bush encouraging the Administration to redouble its efforts to ensure that the Iraq Constitution provides genuine religious freedom for all Iraqi citizens.”

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