Iraq faith minorities fear being left out under law

Baghdad, Iraq - A month before the debuting of a new Iraqi constitution, the country's religious minorities are worried the document may leave out any meaningful provisions for religious freedom.

A panel representing three of those minorities called on the United States to ensure the constitution, to be revealed Aug. 15, benefits them as well as the Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

"If Iraq was invaded by a despotic or authoritarian country, we wouldn't expect any justice or democracy," said Orhan Keten, the U.S. representative of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.

"But being invaded by the United States of America, who promised to bring equality, justice, democracy and pluralism to Iraq, we expect the fulfillment of those promises."

The panel, speaking yesterday at the National Press Club, was a rare gathering of spokesmen for Iraq's Chaldo/Assyrian Catholics, whose 800,000 adherents in northern Iraq are rapidly dwindling; Iraqi Turkmen Muslims; and Mandaeans, who follow John the Baptist as God's chief prophet.

They were joined by Nina Shea, a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, who said a draft of the religious freedom provisions in the new constitution may be available this week.

"Religious freedom is not being red-lined by the U.S. government," she said.

If the constitution names Shariah as the main source of Iraqi civil law, she said, non-Muslims will be relegated to second-class status at best and at worst, be driven out of the country, slain or forced to convert.

"Another Trojan horse," she added, "is a 'repugnancy law,' which is a provision that would say no law can be passed that is 'repugnant' to Islam."

She said the constitution also could give power to unelected clerics, as is the case in Iran, or institute Pakistani-style "blasphemy laws" against anyone presumed to have criticized Islam.

"There's a long history in this region of suppression of non-dominant Muslim groups," she said.

Panelists said their situation in Iraq is already grim; that religious persecution has only worsened since the Americans arrived in the spring of 2003 and that "tens of thousands" of their adherents have fled to neighboring countries.

Not only is the United States refusing to intervene in turf wars between various groups, they said, but it is diverting development funds to these minorities' traditional enemies.

"U.S. funding in northern Iraq is not being directed by the authentic Christian Chaldo/Assyrian leadership," said Michael Youash, project director for the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project and a spokesman for the Aramaic-speaking Chaldo/Assyrian Catholics.

Instead, he contended, Kurdish political parties have been entrusted with millions of dollars in funds that mainly benefits their causes.

Kani Xulam of the American Kurdish Information Network said Kurdish leaders do work with some Assyrians, who are apparently satisfied.

"Others do not work with them and they are the ones complaining," he said. "But there is room for dissent in any society."