Iraqi Interim Constitution Ambiguous on Religious Freedom

Julie Stahl | Jerusalem Bureau Chief | Wednesday, April 7, 2004

Iraqi Interim Constitution Ambiguous on Religious Freedom

Jerusalem ( - Iraqi Christians are concerned that the new Iraqi interim constitution may or may not provide freedom of worship and religion to non-Muslim Iraqis, a Christian group says.

The constitution, signed on March 8 by all 25 members of the Iraqi governing council, has been hailed as progressive by Middle East standards.

But Paul Cooke, advocacy manager for the British-based Barnabus Fund, described the constitution as "very ambiguous" in regards to religious freedom.

"What was positive was the stress on the individual," Cooke said. What was negative, on the other hand, he said was that like in so many Islamic countries, the "back door" is left open to curtail those individual freedoms.

Article 13F of the Iraqi interim constitution, known as the Transitional Administrative Law (T.A.L.), states that, "Each Iraqi has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice. Coercion in such matters shall be prohibited."

Article 7A states that Islam will be considered only as "a" source of legislation rather than "the" source; and the same article "guarantees the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice."

While these articles are "good news" for the Christian community and other religious minorities, the Barnabus Fund said in a statement, that good news is tempered by another element in Article 7A, which says, "No law that contradicts the universally agreed tenets of Islam...may be enacted."

"This could be used to argue against the freedoms, which have apparently been granted to non-Muslims," said the Barnabus Fund.

One example the group gives is that of an adult male Muslim who converts to another religion. All streams of Islamic law agree he should be killed. The question then is how would such a case be handled in Iraq, where a separate constitutional article guarantees "freedom of...religious belief and practice."

"The crunch point of religious freedom [is the right] to proselytize and change [one's] religion," Cooke said. He described it as a "key" point that had been omitted.

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, recently wrote an article saying that while the constitution grants a number of individual political, economic and social rights, including freedom of speech, association, assembly, religion, travel and the right to strike and demonstrate, it is not clear what role Islamic law will play.

"The text...states that 'all Iraqis are equal in their rights without regard to gender, sect, opinion, belief, nationality, religion, or origin, and they are equal before the law,'" Bennis wrote.

"The problem comes - as is the case in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere - not so much in the written law as in its implementation. In this regard, Iraq is unlikely to be very different.

"The relationship between religious law and individual liberty remains unclear. Islam is to be relied on as 'a source' for Iraqi laws, and the constitution states that no law may contradict either Islamic law or the guarantees of individual rights," she wrote.

According to both Bennis and the Barnabus Fund, while the new constitution has been touted as unique in the Islamic world, similar guarantees have been included in the constitutions of other Muslim nations.

One example is Iran, the Barnabus Fund said. While the Iranian constitution forbids investigating the beliefs of individuals and molesting individuals for maintaining a certain belief, it also states that Islamic Sharia law can be applied. That would include a death sentence for anyone who leaves Islam.

Hussein Soodmand was officially executed for converting from Islam to Christianity in 1990. Since then, however, converts usually disappear without a trace, the Barnabus Fund said.

Nevertheless, Cooke said, Christians in Iraq had been surprised by the appearance that some in the governing council may be committed to a secular democratic government. Although the Christians are still "very nervous" he said, they realize the situation is better than it could have been.

Last month, as the interim constitution was being signed, Council President Mohammed Bahr al-Uloom called it "the first stone on which a new, free and democratic Iraq will be built, respectful of human rights."

The U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, said, "Not everybody got everything they wanted in this law, but that is the way democracy works."

One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, there are some 700,000 Assyrian Christians in Iraq - about three percent of the total Iraqi population of 23 million.