Iraq Seeks New Religious Policies

Concerns remain despite reports of Iraq's newfound freedoms and the recent installation of the nation’s first democratically elected government in decades

Religion will play a major role in Iraq's new constitution, which might designate Islam as "the main source" of legislation in the country, stated members of the committee drafting the document.

Committee members said Wednesday at a news conference that part of the current draft constitution states no law will be approved that contradicts "the rules of Islam" – language that could potentially see Iraq transformed into an Islamic state, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The language also goes further than U.S. officials had wanted in defining the role religion will play in shaping the country's laws, the Tribune continued. It could also 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.

However, Humam Hamoodi – the Shiite clergyman who chairs the constitutional committee – said there would be no role for clergy enshrined in Iraq's constitution as it is in places such as Iran, where a powerful council of unelected clergy vets laws to ensure they comply with Islam.

"Clergymen will not interfere in the government's work," he said, according to the Tribune. "The constitution will not impose anything on people."

Members of Iraq's small Christian community as well as other religious minorities will be free to practice their religion, he said.

The president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, similarly told the London-based Guardian that Iraq would enshrine federalism, democracy and pluralism.

"Human rights and individual liberties, including religious freedom, will be at the heart of the new Iraq," the president said at his residence in Baghdad.

Under the former Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein, freedom of religion was severely limited and the religious leadership of Shi'a Muslims was repressed, according to the 2003 International Religious Freedom Report released by the U.S. Department of State.

Although Shi'a Muslims are the largest religious group, Sunni Muslims dominated economic and political life during the Hussein regime.

The U.S. report found that the Government exercised repressive measures against any religious groupings or organizations that were deemed as not providing full political and social support to the regime.

The Government also severely restricted or banned outright many Shi'a religious practices and for decades conducted a brutal campaign of murder, summary execution, arbitrary arrest, and protracted detention against religious leaders and followers of the majority Shi'a Muslim population and sought to undermine the identity of minority Christian (Assyrian and Chaldean) and Yazidi groups.

The regime systematically killed senior Shi'a clerics, desecrated Shi'a mosques and holy sites, interfered with Shi'a religious education, prevented Shi'a adherents from performing their religious rites, and fired upon or arrested Shi'a who sought to take part in their religious processions. Security agents were reportedly stationed at all the major Shi'a mosques and shrines and searched, harassed, and arbitrarily arrested worshipers.

After the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein was militarily overthrown by a U.S.-led Coalition in Operation Iraqi Freedom in April 2003, thousands of religious prisoners were released. While no firm statistics are available regarding the number of religious detainees held by the former regime, observers estimate that the total number of security detainees was in the tens of thousands or more, including numerous religious detainees and prisoners. Some individuals had been held for decades. Others who remain unaccounted for since their arrests may have died or been executed secretly years ago.

Also, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraqis of all faiths – including Shiites, Sunnis, Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans, and Jews – were reportedly enjoying the freedom to openly practice their religious beliefs. According to a March 2004 White House news release, several million people undertook a pilgrimage to Karbala in southern Iraq that month to observe the Shiite holy day of Ashura. It was the first time in more than three decades that Iraqis were able to mark Ashura without the shadow of the Baathist regime hanging over the ceremonies. In the years prior, Saddam Hussein's army and security forces would surround Karbala and Najaf and imprison many Iraqis who attempted to participate in the Ashura observances.

Despite reports of Iraq’s newfound freedoms and the recent installation of the nation’s first democratically elected government in decades, some say the designation of Islam as the main source of legislation in Iraq's constitution could set Iraq on a course far different from the one envisioned when U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein.

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 Iraqi 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.

However, some sources point out that Islamic law, like Jewish law and Christian canon law, means different things to different people in different times and places.

"In the hands of fundamentalists, it is legally binding on all people of the faith, and even on all people that come under their control," stated one source. However, "in the hands of moderates, the religious law can be moderate, even liberal."

Adnan Janabi, a secularist and one of the committee's deputy chairmen, similarly said after yesterday’s news conference that the extent to which Iraq becomes an Islamic state would depend on the results of future elections and the makeup of the constitutional court that would rule on the constitutionality of the nation's laws.

According to the Tribune, Janabi said he would have preferred a complete separation of religion and state "but we have to accept the reality of the moment."

Secularists in the constitutional committee are now trying to push for language elsewhere in the constitution that will counterbalance its demand that all laws comply with Islamic law.