Will Post-War Iraq Accept Religious Freedom?

As Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council works on drafting an Iraqi constitution, members of Iraq’s Assyrian Christian minority worry that religious freedom may not be on the agenda.

“The constitution subcommittee has proposed language for the constitution that says, ‘Islam is the majority religion in Iraq,'” said Ken Joseph, a Protestant minister of Assyrian descent who moved to Iraq early this year and is an active leader in his community. “All the Muslim members of the Governing Council support this line or a position that is even more privileged for Islam, so that is 24 out of 25 members.”

Yonadan Kanna, an Assyrian, is the only non-Muslim on the council, said Joseph.

“What this means,” said Joseph, “is that two tracks will be set up in Iraq like in all other Muslim countries. Most Iraqis believe that democracy means majority rule. So whatever the majority wants and is, is what should be. They have no Western-style understanding of minority rights.”

Joseph said that though most Iraqis are politically secular and do not want an Islamic state, “They are intimidated by the radicals. They are afraid that the Americans will leave in two or three years and the radicals will take over.”

A Zogby Poll of Iraqis released September 10 found that 60% wanted a secular government rather than an Islamic one. Thirty-seven per cent picked the United States as a model for government while 28% chose Saudi Arabia. Only 40% said democracy could work in Iraq.

A State Department official familiar with the issue said the United States is giving Iraqis great latitude in drafting its own constitution. But “we would like a strong declaration of religious freedom included,” he said. He agreed with Joseph’s contention that even under pro-Western Arab regimes in Egypt and Jordan, non-Muslims face significant discrimination. “We want to set up a model for democracy in Iraq,” he said, “but that does not preclude an Islamic dimension to that.”

Paul Marshall, senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House, traveled to Iraq in July and met with senior Christian leaders. He said, “The United States did not appear sufficiently cognizant of the dangers. To my knowledge, the CPA [Coalition for Provisional Authority] there has not appointed anyone to deal with religious issues.”

Marshall argued that there was a simple way for the United States to insist on religious freedom in Iraq without seeming “imperialistic.” “Use international human rights standards such as the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights,” he said. “Who could object to them?”

Marshall said that “blasphemy laws and apostasy laws” were his greatest concerns for Iraq based on the experience of other Muslim countries. “Blasphemy laws have been used to criminalize criticism of implementing Islamic law,” he said. “Apostasy laws mean that a Muslim who converts to Christianity could face death.”