Iraqi Christians Have Doubts About Religious Freedom

Mosul, Iraq - Christians in Iraq are optimistic about the new constitutional text, but hope for the improvement of certain points in which the principles of Islam (one of the sources of law) and those of democracy seem to contrast, particularly in terms of the full respect of religious freedom: Islam, in fact, does not accept that Muslims convert to other religions.

"It is still too early for a definitive evaluation of the new constitution," the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Monsignor Emmanuel III Delly said in remarks to AsiaNews, "We, as Iraqis, are satisfied for the time being, but discussions are continuing on various points." The Patriarch is certain that "most Christians in Iraq are confident about this text, which is not perfect, but which can be improved with time." Msgr Delly does not seem worried. "The fact that Islam is one of the principal sources of legislation does not jeopardize freedom and respect for all other religions." Patriarch Delly says he will continue to "defend his flock as Iraqis and as Christians and encourage them to profess their faith freely and without fear."

Hopes are high also in Mossul, an area among those most affected by terrorism and where, over the past year, Christians have often been the target of violence by Islamic fundamentalists. Local sources speak of "great expectations and optimism," even if Monsignor Paul Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Archbishop of the city, in an interview with AsiaNews, expresses some doubts, especially about Article 2 of the constitution, which appears to highlight the difficulty and ambiguity of juxtaposing the respect for Islam and that for democratic principles and basic rights. "Islam is the official religion of the state," the text reads, "and a basic source of legislation…No law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed principles of Islam, of democracy and of basic rights and freedom outlined in this constitution."

"We are in a predominantly Muslim country," Msgr Rahho remarks. "We are not concerned that Islam is the state religion, but being a basic source of legislation contradicts the principles of democracy and freedom, and, above all, the other possible sources are not mentioned." The Bishops points to the possibility of "one day finding ourselves faced with laws which are compatible with Islam but not with the values of a free society."

The prelate points to the second point of the same article as an example of such a contradiction: "This constitution guarantees the Islamic identity of the majority of the Iraqi population and full religious rights for all and the freedom of faith and religious practice." Religious freedom includes also that of being able to change one's faith; Archbishop Rahho stresses however that, in order to respect Islamic law, this is impossible: in many Islamic countries, conversion to other religions is discouraged or prohibited. Therefore, citizens cannot freely change their religion without contravening Article 2 (a). At the same time, however, if the freedom to abandon Islam for another faith is not guaranteed, Article 2 (b) is contravened.

But Islam willingly welcomes converts from other religions and here, Msgr Rahho warns, "the biggest problem" takes shape. "When one or both parents become Muslim," he explains, "minors in the family are also automatically registered as Muslims: this involves the imposition of a new religion even on those who have not chosen it." Once again," the prelate emphasizes, "the question is why can one convert to Islam and not vice versa?"

"As Christians," the bishop concludes, "we hope that with time the new constitution will arrive at guaranteeing more clearly the respect for all basic rights."