Archbishop of Westminster: Iraq Constitution Draft a Threat to Religious Freedom

A top Roman Catholic Church leader in the United Kingdom warned Monday that the draft constitution of the new democratic Iraq could be a threat to religious freedom. His comment echoed the deep concern of the Iraqi Christian minority and churches.
Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster and the Head of the Roman Catholic Church of England and Wales, wrote a letter to the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last Friday. He cited the controversial Article 2(a) of the draft constitution translated by the Associated Press that states "no law can be passed that contradicts the undisputed rules of Islam".

Iraqi Christians and churches are alarmed by Article 2(a), though they "do not question that Iraq will be an Islamic state, nor object to Islam being considered one source of legislation among others", the Cardinal continued in the letter.

The constitution, he warned, contains "a real threat to religious freedom."

In an interview with Italy-based AsiaNews late August, Monsignor Paul Faraj Rahho, Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, explained the controversy.

"We are in a predominantly Muslim country," Msgr Rahho remarked. "We are not concerned that Islam is the state religion, but being a basic source of legislation contradicts the principles of democracy and freedom."
Rahho stressed that religious freedom includes freedom to convert one’s faith from one to another. However, in order to respect Islamic laws, the conversion to religions other than Islam must be discouraged or prohibited. Therefore, he warned that Islam-driven legislations may become a threat to human rights and religious freedom, AsiaNews reported.

Standing in line with the Iraqi Christians and churches, Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor pleaded for the intervention of the British Foreign Minister Jack Straw on the issue.

In his letter, he urged Straw "to influence the parties to the Constitution to enshrine specific guarantees which establish the equality of non-Muslims and to remove the above-mentioned clause."

Since last summer, when a series of coordinated attacks hit Christians or churches in Baghdad and in the northern city of Mossul, there has been an existing tension between Muslims and Christians in Iraq. Official figures claim that 15,000 Iraqi Christians have fled the country by the end of 2004 because of the violence.

Noting a mass exodus of Christians from Iraq, Murphy-O’Connor warned that if the clause remained it could have "devastating consequences" for Iraq’s ancient Christian minority, and "fatally undermine" plans for a stable democracy in the region.

Most recently, the Iraq’s Parliament closed week-long negotiation talks hoping to refine the wordings used in the Constitution on Tuesday, Sept. 6. There were no changes made to the final wording and the draft will be printed in its present form, according to the latest report of the Associated Press.

The United Nations will start printing and distributing five million copies of the Constitution to the Iraq’s 26 million-strong population. The draft will be voted on in a general referendum and ratified by the general assembly on Oct. 15.

Eunice Or
Christian Today Correspondent