Congress concerned over religious freedoms in Iraq

As Iraq writes its first constitution in the coming months, one word will be key: Allah.

Conservative Republican lawmakers in Congress worry that the Muslim-dominated country will shed its secular history and officially turn into an Islamic state, complete with a constitution that says Islam is its national religion.

To try to steer Baghdad's constitutional process away from establishing an official Islamic state, two lawmakers, Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., tucked freedom-of-religion provisions into the Senate and House and versions of legislation that would send almost $87 billion to Iraq.

The provisions would instruct the Coalition Provisional Authority to work with Iraq to make sure the new constitution contains specific language to protect religious freedom. While each chamber's version differs slightly, the compromise language is expected to pass Congress next week along with the overall $87 billion spending bill.

"You need to have that separation of church and state, of mosque and state," said Brownback, sponsor of the Senate version.

Christians make up less than 1 percent of Iraq's 24 million people. The majority of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, but Saddam Hussein's Baathist Party regime was run mainly by Sunni Muslims, who repressed the Shiites.

The freedom-of-religion terms could complicate delicate relations between the Iraqis and the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, which runs day-to-day operations in Iraq. The language could suggest to the Arab world that the United States is not sensitive to Muslim religious and legal autonomy, experts warn.

Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, head of the authority, worries that the United States should not appear to be dictating terms for the Iraqi constitution. Bremer has insisted on a low profile for the Americans helping the Iraqi Governing Council, locals handpicked by the United States, to develop the nation's first democratic government.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, which conducts oversight of money for rebuilding Iraq, also opposes the effort to highlight religious freedom over other important issues that should be in a constitution. "Why should that be singled out as opposed to having a representative government or ensuring freedom of speech?" Kolbe asked.

The freedom-of-religion language could put the Iraqi Governing Council in the hot seat by making it choose between what locals want and what the U.S. Congress demands, said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Arab constitutional law at George Washington University. That could undercut getting the final constitution approved by the Iraqi public, he said. "This could be a major headache for Bremer."

The Bush administration is not planning to push Iraq to include religious freedom guarantees in its constitution. Instead, it plans to put the issue "in the broader context of individual liberties," Bremer told senators last month.

In a heated exchange with Brownback, Bremer said, "The Iraqis are writing this constitution, not me."

Brownback's provision would go further than Wolf's by insisting on explicit protections for the Christian minority in Iraq and evangelicals who proselytize. He wants to make sure that no laws can be used against people who speak against Islam or who decide to convert to another religion.

Brownback and Wolf have a long history of pursuing legislation to protect religious freedom overseas. Their work has earned them accolades among conservatives who believe Christians are being attacked worldwide by repressive regimes in China, Africa and in the Middle East.