The Fundamental Freedom

WASHINGTON — In a Jan.16 letter to Paul Bremer, the administrator of Iraq, and in a subsequent conversation with President Bush, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., a Catholic, raised his concerns about the future of religious freedom in Iraq

“I am aware that the interim constitution must be completed by Feb. 28,” Santorum said in the letter. “Iraq's new constitution should clearly and unequivocally set forth the ‘right of everyone to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’ This is not only consistent with core American values but it is also the internationally accepted language of the [U.N.] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The senator noted that previous versions of Iraq's constitution and the current constitution of Afghanistan — a nation also recently liberated by U.S. troops from an oppressive regime — “omitted this right. Those constitutions merely recognize a limited right to perform religious ‘rites’ or ‘worship.’” Santorum said the omission has had negative consequences.

“Using the threat of blasphemy prosecutions, the U.S.-backed Karzai government has arrested two journalists for writing an article that questioned Islam's compatibility with democracy, forced out the only female member of the cabinet after she challenged the appropriateness of Shariah [Islamic law] and presided over the shutdown of a women's radio broadcast.”

He pointed out that not only Iraqi Christians, who make up about 3% of the population, and Jews would benefit from religious freedom, but the different and at times mutually hostile Muslim sects in Iraq also would.

Bremer wrote back Jan. 24, saying the interim constitution — officially called the Transitional Administrative Law — will “include a bill of rights providing for freedom of speech and religion, as well as a statement concerning the equal rights of all Iraqis, regardless of gender, sect or ethnicity.”

He noted that attempts by the Governing Council to impose aspects of Shariah are “disturbing” but “do not have the force of law.”

“To me,” Santorum told the Register, religious freedom is “the core issue here. If we are to be successful in promoting democracy and creating a stable Middle East, we must have religious freedom. We must prevent the conditions for radical Islam to take hold. I didn't take on one security risk to create another. First and foremost, it's a national security issue. Second, clearly I think it's important to have the freedom of religion, the freedom of thought.”

Pope John Paul II addressed the issue of religious freedom in a Jan. 30 address to the new ambassador of the Republic of China to the Holy See, the Pope said there can be no genuine development without freedom and no genuine freedom without the free exercise of religion in society.

“The good of society entails that the right to religious freedom be enshrined in law and be given effective protection,” the Holy Father told Chou-seng Tou, the Taiwanese ambassador. “Religions are a component in the life and culture of a nation and bring a great sense of well-being to a community by offering a certain level of social order, tranquility, harmony and assistance to the weak and the outcast.”

In his letter to Bremer, Santorum said, “The most immediate threat to religious freedom lies in proposals to overturn the religious neutrality of Iraq's interim constitution as outlined in the Nov. 15 agreement with the Iraqi Governing Council.” Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority struck the deal.

“The biggest danger would be a negation clause in the interim constitution,” said Nina Shea, director of Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. “If there is a right to religious freedom, it must not be negated by another clause that says nothing can contradict Islam or a clause that says Shariah is a source of law.”

She said any such clause would be used by fundamentalists, “who always try to gain control of the courts” to trump a religious-freedom clause.

“Otherwise,” Shea said, “moderate Muslims will be accused of blasphemy.”

She said she feared Governing Council member Abdul Azziz Hakim, head of the radical political party Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, would try to turn Iraq into a Shariah state.

We cannot let the world think “that a Shariah state is acceptable to the United States,” she said, adding that the opposite extreme, the secularism that increasingly persecutes religious believers in Western countries, was “not an issue” of concern for Iraq.

Experts also are uncertain about the intentions of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who has tied the Bush administration in knots over his demands for direct elections instead of caucuses for the transitional assembly that will legislate for Iraq beginning in June.

The leading Shiite cleric in Iraq, the Iranian-backed Sistani might or might not want an Iranian-style government. Nor are experts certain of what the majority of the Iraqi people desire.

“I don't think there will be an Iranian-type theocracy,” said Walter Grazer, policy adviser on religious liberty and human rights for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “But you might get indirect Shariah law.”

Freedom House's Shea said apart from what the law says is the issue of whether minority groups will be protected from “the radical groups that may want to persecute them.”

Dominican Sister Theresa Helen, an Iraqi living in Beirut, Lebanon, said her congregation in Baghdad, Basra and Mosul, Iraq, was able to continue its activities.

But Dominican Sister Else-Britt Nilsen, from Oslo, Norway, said her contacts in Iraq have told her militant groups have become more active since Saddam Hussein's downfall.

“I don't think we have more religious freedom in Iraq now,” she said. “I think we have less.”

“They see Christians as Westerners,” said Geraldine Hemmings, communications director for Aid to the Church in Need, of most Iraqis. “There has been no widespread persecution, but there have been several incidents since the end of the war.”

She said Christian women in Basra had been “forced to wear the black coats that Muslim women wear” and “radical Muslims have attacked Christian-owned liquor stores.”

“The Christian community not only is an ancient Church in Iraq, providing schools and health care, but is integral to the history of Iraq. … Sometimes, Christians help stabilize the country,” Grazer said. “Archbishop Gabriel Kassab, Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Basra, is sometimes asked to mediate between different Muslim groups.”

Now, he said, “we're not seeing serious problems with the Catholic Church” in Iraq. “Some people are saying as long as we guarantee the freedom of worship, that is enough. … That's not adequate. That's what the Soviet Union had.”

He said the Iraqi constitution instead should incorporate language from the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights to guarantee religious freedom.

A State Department official said the Nov. 15 agreement “spelled out very specifically the freedom of religion. There is no institutional barrier in Iraq to religious freedom. Occasionally, you hear of situations.”

Santorum said it is not imperialistic to impose religious freedom on Iraq.

“We can't know what's going to happen in the future in Iraq,” he said, “but we can get them off to a good start. … Religious freedom is not a matter of Western values. It's more a matter of natural law.”

Joseph D'Agostino writes from Washington.