Published: 00:00 GMT Daylight Time - Thursday 08 May 2003
What does the future hold for Christians in Iraq?
700,000 Christians fear the establishment of an Islamic state governed by Shari'ah.
The political and constitutional future of Iraq is an immediate concern for Iraqi Christians. According to Archbishop Sleiman of Baghdad, "If the influence and pressure of extremist groups, which are regaining their vigour, increases in the future, I don't know what kind of future can be envisioned." Christians in Iraq fear rule by the majority Shia Muslim population. On 14 April Shia clerics made it clear that they wanted Iraq to become an Islamic state governed according to Shari'ah. Judging by past events this does not bode well for Christians, for in 1991 when the Shia rebelled against Saddam Hussein in Basra the first district attacked was the Christian quarters of the city. Shia hostility to the presence of US and British troops is increasingly evident as many took to the streets of Nassiriya to demonstrate on 15 April, while the main Shia opposition group boycotted talks with the US and Britain held at the Talil air base. In a Friday sermon on 2 May, in the town of Kufa, Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Sadr specifically called for the Shari'ah to be imposed, not only on Muslims but on Iraqi Christians as well. Such anti-western feeling could still lead to Iraqi Christians being associated with the "invading" armies, leading to attacks on Christians.
The news agency ZENIT reported Father Nizar Semaan, a Syrian Orthodox priest, in the context of the Shia pilgrimage to Karbala, as saying, "we see these events with apprehension, not because we are against freedom of belief and religion which we want as the foundation for the new Iraq, but because we are familiar with the mentality and culture of Shiite Muslims and we know that what they want is a theocratic Iraq founded on Islamic law. There is a danger that we Christians may have to choose between remaining in Iraq as second-class citizens deprived of our rights, or leaving this land of our fathers. We are sorry to see that while the Shiite gatherings were broadcast far and wide, no media attention was given to Christians in Iraq who at the time were celebrating Easter. While we are praying for peace and true freedom and democracy, our Shiite Muslim brothers were chanting slogans for an Islamic state and a new war. I hope the rest of the world will see the danger and continue to help Iraq become a truly secular and democratic country were all groups are respected."
The more moderate Iraqi National Congress (INC), an umbrella organisation sponsored by the US and made up of Iraq's major opposition groups, has already discussed draft constitutions, some of which describe "Shari'ah as the source of tomorrow's legal norms" in Iraq. The INC is dominated by Sunni, Shia and Kurdish groups. Christians, who make up 3% of the population, fear that it will be difficult for them to have their say in the building of a new Iraq.
The Chaldean church recently issued a statement asking that any future Iraqi constitution should guarantee them the right to, "profess our faith according to our ancient traditions and our religious law, the right to educate our children according to Christian principles, the right to freely assemble, to build our places of worship, and our cultural and social centres according to our needs."
It seems unlikely that the US would knowingly allow a new Iraq based on Shari'ah, yet many Christians remain nervous. This is especially because, according to Secretary Colin Powell, the US would see no objection to "an Islamic form of government that has as its basis the faith of Islam" and is democratic. Many Christians would prefer a more overtly secular or pluralistic democratic constitution. Otherwise, in the words of one man in Baghdad, "it is going to be like Iran - all Christians are afraid now." The small Iraqi Jewish community, mainly resident in Baghdad, are also afraid of the creation of an Islamic state.
EMERGING FROM THE WAR
Half of Iraq's Christians live in and around Baghdad where looting and pillaging has been rife since the city was taken over by US troops. Some churches, like other public buildings, have been broken into and vandalised, adding to the damage of church property that was sustained during the bombardment of Baghdad by the coalition forces.
Despite widespread fears, there have been no reported attacks on Christians by Muslims as a result of the war, either in Iraq or other countries in the Islamic world. This is probably partly due to the well publicised anti-war stance taken by many western Christian leaders.
1. Pray that Iraqi Christians will have the opportunity to express their views in debates about the future of Iraq.
2. Pray for a peaceful and stable democratic constitution for Iraq that will accommodate all religions.
3. Pray for the ongoing safety of Christians as they and their Muslim neighbours begin to rebuild their lives and country.
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