Iraq constitution limits religious freedom: US official

Washington, USA - Preeta Bansal, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, says the Iraqi constitution as it is being drafted will mirror the Iranian state rather than ensuring all religious practice freely.

Bansal, a former New York State solicitor general, urged the Bush administration and other countries to intervene to make sure a theocracy does not emerge.

Speaking at a Washington Post Online Discussion, Bansal said Tuesday: "We have been concerned about the fact that while the United States has fought a war in Iraq at considerable cost of blood and treasure, the Iraqi constitutional drafting committee may well be on its way toward establishing an Iran-like judicial theocracy in Iraq.

"We believe that, at this stage of our engagement, the United States and the international community must act to ensure that democracy and freedom are supported in Iraq through its constitution as well as other measures. This is essential for regional security as well as for human rights."

Bansal, who is an attorney by profession, conducted the online discussion along with Robert Blitt, international law specialist and senior policy adviser for Iraq at the commission.

The two of them believe that the current draft of the Iraqi constitution predominantly casts a shadow over religious freedom and feel too much legal authority is being placed under Islamic law.

Earlier this year, the commission had orchestrated the State Department finally deciding to deny a US visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom is a bipartisan independent federal agency created by Congress in 1998 to give advice to the president, secretary of state and Congress about how best to promote freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as those freedoms are defined in the international human rights instruments.

While international agreements do not stop Iraq from establishing a particular religion as official, Bansal conceded, "...the drafts of the Iraqi constitution that are circulating would go far beyond establishing Islam as the official religion of the state (which is allowed).

"The drafts have Islamic law principles pervade numerous aspects of the Bill of Rights, and even make the individual rights guarantees in the constitution subject to (and able to be superseded by) Islamic law -- and so the rights guarantees for non-Muslims and non-believers (and even for Muslim believers who do not subscribe to the majority sect or the state-imposed version of Islam) could be impaired by official interpretations of Islam."

According to her, this is contrary to the requirements of international law, "and certainly would undermine a successful democracy in Iraq by chilling rights of expression, political debate and dissent, individual thought, and full participation in political and public life by all Iraqis".

Recent polls in Iraq indicate most Iraqis want Islam to have a role but they also want basic human rights protection and the freedom to practice their faith.

Apart from forcible shutting down of liquor stores, there have been instances of bombing of churches, reports of women being compelled to wear a veil, making separate entrances for men and women in university campuses, Bansal and Blitt noted, pointing to an exodus of people of non-Islamic faiths from Iraq.