As violence in Iraq reaches new appalling levels, the foundations are being laid upon which shari'a (Islamic law) may be built.
With the current figures standing at 271 deaths after the anti-Shi'a bombings of 2 March, the Iraqi Governing Council has declared three days of mourning, and hence a delay in the signing of the interim constitution, or Transitional Administrative Law.
TRANSITIONAL ADMINISTRATIVE LAW
The T.A.L. cites Islam as "a source of law" as opposed to "the source of law". Such wording would bode well, were it not for the following qualifying paragraph which states that no law is to be passed which goes against the tenets of Islam. Such tenets are codified in the shari'a, which carries inbuilt discrimination against women and non-Muslims. This, coupled with the fact that Islam is not to be merely recognised as the majority religion, but the "official religion", does not augur well for women, religious minorities and even Muslim reformers, who may be open to charges of apostasy or blasphemy. There are no commitments to honour Iraq's signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Without such restrictions there will be nothing to prevent shari'a compliant legislation being passed, or a judge ruling according to shari'a even where such moves contravene international human rights standards.
The T.A.L. enshrines a much vaunted "Bill of Rights" and Article 4 does guarantee "freedom, practice and rites of the other religions". "Rites" will be protected, but what about "rights"? The emphasis is institutional and it is worrying that draft documents have made no mention of the individual's right to religious expression, let alone freedom to choose one's faith. Christians and other recognised religions may well be free in the future Iraq to meet together and perform corporate acts of worship. However there will be no protection for the individual's freedom of expression, no protection for an individual who wants to change his/her religion and no freedom to engage in missionary activities except for Islam. Religions not officially recognised, like the Mandeans (followers of John the Baptist), will no doubt continue to be ruthlessly persecuted.
The T.A.L. will probably be in force until some time in 2005. It is likely that the superseding permanent constitution will be based on a more or less unchanged version of the T.A.L.
SHARI'A EATING AWAY AT WOMEN'S RIGHTS
A piece of news which Iraqi women and Christians have greeted with great relief was the defeat of Resolution 137 in a vote taken by the Governing Council. This would have established shari'a courts for the adjudication of family matters and stripped women and religious minorities of significant legal rights they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein.
However moves to introduce shari'a compliant regulations on a smaller, quieter scale have worryingly seen more success. For example, the minister of education has replaced all but three university presidents with Islamists. They in turn have decreed that all women at university should now wear headscarves. A female lawyer in Najaf was barred from being a judge by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani who declared that judges must be "sane, mature and male". The Governing Council's Vice-Minister of Agriculture, Dr Sawsan al-Sharafi, was asked to leave her post because certain hardliners would not work for her.
As the modus operandi increasingly resembles shari'a, not only women, but also Christians are likely to find themselves facing increasing discrimination.
ANTI-CHRISTIAN VIOLENCE CONTINUES
The greatest problem facing Christians at the moment is violence and the threat of violence. On 3 February a Christian residence in Basra was hit by a grenade. "Before they were just attacking us in the street, now we are not safe in our own homes," said the head of the household. On 11 February gunmen fired on an office of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Mosul, injuring one security guard. Most Iraqi Christians are ethnic Assyrians, and the party provides the only Christian representative on the Governing Council, Younadam Kana.
On 14 February an American missionary was killed as gunmen from a passing car liberally strafed the taxi he was travelling in. Pastor John Kelly was with a group of three other American Christian leaders. They were returning from a trip to see the ruins of Babylon, when a car started to overtake their taxi on the inside. The four occupants armed with Kalashnikovs then suddenly opened fire.
Five Christian roadside vendors in Basra were shot dead on 15 February by vigilantes with Kalashnikovs. The gunmen pulled up in police vehicles and were wearing police uniforms suggesting a disturbing connection between hardliners who want to introduce shari'a and the coalition supervised police.
William Warda, head of the Assyrian Democratic Movement's Department of Culture and Information said "Many Christian Churches have received anonymous threatening letters." Bishop al-Qas of Amadiyah, in the Kurdish region, said that posters had been put up urging Christians to convert to Islam or leave the country.
Whole denominations have taken the decision not to hold night time services anymore, but only daytime ones. One church in Baghdad has stopped having services altogether. Muslim extremists are calling Iraqi Christians "crusaders" or a "fifth column for the Christian West and the Americans". Sheikh Abd al-Jabbar Menhal, a Baghdad representative of the main Shi'a centre, Al-Hawza al-Ilmiya, said on 19 February that "we are aware there are signs of potential attacks and we condemn these activities, since Islam respects all sacred places, like mosques, churches, etc."