Constitution Still Leaves Question Mark

BAGHDAD, Iraq — An interim constitution signed March 8 seems to have allayed fears about the future of religious freedom in Iraq.

After a marathon debating session, Iraq's 25-member governing council agreed on the document March 1. Besides containing a Western-style bill of rights, the interim constitution specifically guarantees religious freedom.

Islam was defined as the official religion of Iraq but was considered “a” source of legislation and not “the” source. No legislation can contradict Islamic law or the bill of rights.

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., had written a letter on Jan. 16 to Paul Bremer, the administrator of Iraq, expressing his concern about the future of religious freedom in Iraq. After going over the main points of the interim constitution this week, the senator now feels reassured.

“I had expressed, in my letter, my grave concerns regarding the protection of religious rights, as opposed to religious ‘rites,’ as well as Islamic law being considered ‘a’ source of legislation instead of ‘the’ source,” he said. “Both these things have been addressed.”

Iraqi Bishop Ibrahim Ibrahim, head of the Chaldean Church in the St. Thomas Diocese, which comprises the Eastern United States, was optimistic but more cautious.

The question mark for him is the section saying no law can contradict Islam. Bishop Ibrahim believes this means that no law can go against the five main principles of Islam, which are accepted by all Muslims.

“I think the constitution will not go against these principles,” he said. “My concern is how this will be interpreted. Who interprets this? This will be a problem.”

Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, thinks it could be more than a problem.

“It is a way to usher in Shariah [Islamic law],” she said. “It's known as a ‘repugnancy clause’ and it originated in Persia. It undermines legislation and guts the bill of rights in the name of Islam.”

The interim constitution apparently allowed for the dual provision that no law be repugnant to Islam or the bill of rights as a compromise.

“But it's not a compromise,” Shea said. “It's a clash of two world visions. What will be enforced? Will it be up to the pronouncement of a Shariah judge? Will the bill of rights be upheld?”

The resurgence of extreme Islam and fundamentalism is ultimately what religious-freedom analysts worry about the most.

“We are seeing it in Iraq because the goal is to impose a totalitarian Islamic state,” Shea said. “It is hard to predict what will happen, but we should be very firm in dealing with this now.”

The basic issue, according to Shea, is the genuine separation of church and state.

Pope John Paul II, in his Feb. 23 meeting with the new Turkish ambassador to the Holy See, advocated an “adequate separation of church and state so that citizens, regardless of their religion, can make their contribution to society.”

The Holy Father further noted that “the clear distinction between the civil and religious spheres allows each of these sectors to exercise its proper responsibilities effectively, with mutual respect and in complete freedom of conscience.” Thus the church and state, he said, “are not rivals but partners.”

Shea released a press statement on March 4 calling on Bremer and the governing council to clarify the “tenets of Islam” that are to be the standards for legislation.

“This vague formulation risks empowering un-elected religious authorities to override basic rights in determining what is ‘Islamically correct,’” she noted. “It could also lead to further sectarian violence and struggle over interpretation.”

Shea concludes that this issue is the “central defining question about Iraq's future: whether it's to be a democracy with a bill of rights or an Islamist state … there must be clarification before it is too late.”

In the aftermath of the deadly suicide bombings in Baghdad and Karbala in early March, the future of Iraq is unclear.

“We hope the best for Iraq,” Bishop Ibrahim said. “We must be realistic. There will always be extremists who will try to stop the evolution of democracy. They aren't used to it and want to control the country.”

Hope for Freedom

Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, believes there is hope on the issue of religious freedom in Iraq.

“One of the things readers must understand,” he said, “is the difference between granting freedom of worship and granting freedom to individuals. By granting religious freedom, each individual person — because of their dignity as a human being — can choose their religion or even change their religion. Sometimes people think it is enough to allow freedom of worship. But real freedom would mean that Muslims can, for example, change their faith.”

Based on initial reports, Archbishop Chaput believes the interim constitution really does allow individuals the freedom to choose.

“The Saddam Hussein regime, repugnant as it was, was in a certain sense a secular state,” Archbishop Chaput said. “Sunnis suppressed the Shiites, who are the majority. Now Shiites have religious freedom and this means they are more religiously aggressive. Now we have the possibility of more religious conflict, and there is great concern because of this.”

“If you recall the speeches of the members of Congress,” Sen. Santorum said, “they said that winning the peace would be harder than winning the war. It will be a long and difficult transition. I'm not discouraged. To be discouraged is a victory for those who are against the United States and those who would revert back to the Baathist days or who want a religiously controlled state — neither of which is in the best interest of Iraq.”

The interim constitution, which was signed on March 8th, will remain in effect until a permanent constitution in drawn up by an elected parliament. Elections in Iraq are slated to be held at the end of 2004 or January 2005.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the new version of the constitution guarantees every citizen freedom of thought, conscience and religious belief. The commission monitors international religious freedom.

“This emphasis on individual freedom is unique for the region,” the commission said in a March 8 statement. “These guarantees should not only be put into practice now, but also enshrined in Iraq's permanent constitution.”

Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is based in Rome.