Baghdad, IRAQ - Senior research fellow, Brian J. Grim, paints a harrowing picture of the ongoing persecution of Iraqi Christians. The research expert on religion and world affairs with the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C. reports that the situation for Christians in Iraq is worsening.
“It is no small irony, of course, that the Shiite majority that's now a leading force in Iraq was brutalized and suppressed under Saddam, who extensively curbed the Shiites' religious freedoms. A State Department report in 2002 said Saddam's government ‘severely restricts or bans outright many Shiite religious practices.’ One might think that those fresh memories would be enough to ensure liberties for Iraq's religious minorities today. Yet that appears not to be the case,” writes Grim in his report.
Iraqi Christians are part of historic indigenous communities that have been in what is now Iraq nearly since the time of Christ, several centuries before Islam came to the region. The majority of them are Chaldean Christians, an ancient religious group affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Grim points out what's particularly devastating for Iraq's religious minorities is the lack of clear legal protections for religious freedom. Although Article 2 of the Iraqi Constitution guarantees religious freedom, it also contains what some have termed a "repugnancy clause," which states, "No law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established." Because the clause does not explicitly state what the "established provisions of Islam" encompass or exclude, this opens the door for the state and the courts to become theological arbiters. As such, there are no formal avenues for religious minorities to participate in the process.
Furthermore, Article 89 of the constitution stipulates that the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court include experts in Islamic jurisprudence, which means that the provision in Article 2 will be supported by a court system with people specifically employed to interpret Islamic law. These people can be appointed without having civil law training.
The nature and extent of the violations of religious freedom were not only severe, they also were tolerated by the government and, in some cases, committed by forces within the government. As such, a bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom included Iraq on a "watch list" of countries where religious liberty is severely threatened.
Religious leaders have made numerous attempts to broker resolutions. In 2007, American president George W. Bush recounted, the pontiff " was concerned that the society that was evolving (in Iraq) would not tolerate the Christian religion."
Indeed, Iraqi Christians have continued to find themselves in the cross hairs of faith-inspired violence. The worst episodes have occurred in regions with diverse ethnic and religious groups, such as Baghdad and Mosul, where the majority of Iraq's Christians live. The State Department reported last year that Muslim extremists "warned Christians living in Baghdad's Dora district to convert, leave or be killed."
Commission representatives recently visited Iraq. Among other things, they are assessing whether religious freedom is threatened due to possible collusion between Shiite militias and Iraqi government ministries, and whether the country's smallest religious minorities are being marginalized by government officials and parastate militias. If Iraqi government's culpability in violations of religious freedom continues, Iraq would join the likes of Burma, Iran, North Korea and Sudan.
The political and social consequences of this oppression will need to be addressed by the new U.S. administration, whichever party wins the White House in November. An Iraq that truly honors and protects religious freedom would be a benchmark of success that all Americans — and no doubt both parties — would applaud.