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Iraqis Get New Rights

Center for Religious Freedom

Over the year, the Center worked assiduously to safeguard the rights of Iraqi Christians and other minorities. We focused on the drafting of Iraq’s new interim constitution and succeeded in persuading American authorities to red line religious freedom in it.

One might have expected that this would automatically have been on the American agenda. But it wasn’t. Moreover, it was no easy task getting it on.

The Center was alarmed by an early draft, which had omitted religious freedom from the Bill of Rights altogether. U.S. officials told Congress last spring that they couldn’t guarantee religious freedom would be protected in this constitution. The top U.S. adviser in the drafting had hinted to the press that the United States might accept an Islamist state in Iraq. Also in November, Afghanistan, under U.S. and UN auspices, adopted a constitution that failed to include religious freedom and incorporated a form of Islamic sharia law.

After we pressed senior U.S. officials and Congress, a subsequent draft mentioned religious freedom but only in terms of a limited group right to worship. This language would have reinforced Islamic rule, in effect granting freedom to a group’s clerical leaders, and not to the individual.

The Center redoubled its efforts. We undertook an extensive program of activities throughout the fall and early into the New Year to ensure that individual religious freedom was given constitutional protection. Following up a fact-finding mission to Iraq by Center Fellow Paul Marshall last summer and conferences we organized in the United States with Iraqi Christian leaders, Center staff then:

  • Worked with Senator Rick Santorum, the chair of the Senate Republican Conference, to issue a strong appeal to CPA head Paul Bremer;
  • Worked with Senator Sam Brownback (who last spring had attached at our urging an amendment to the Iraq appropriation bill calling for religious freedom guarantees) to draft an appeal signed by four key senators from both parties to National Security Council Adviser Condoleeza Rice;
  • Coordinated a press conference with Iraqi-American Christian groups on Capitol Hill with Senators Santorum and Collins;
  • Met directly with the Iraq expert on the National Security Council and submitted language for a religious freedom provision;
  • Wrote and published no less than ten op-ed articles in the major media on the issue, and gave numerous media interviews, including an appearance by Center director Nina Shea on Fox TV;
  • Advised American Catholic and Evangelical groups in their advocacy. Our efforts finally met with success!

The interim constitution that was adopted by Iraq’s Governing Council on March 8 contains a powerful assertion of the right to religious freedom: “Each Iraqi has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religious belief and practice. Coercion in such matters shall be prohibited.” Other provisions throughout the interim constitution reinforce this right.

The founding document that the United States leaves behind will be an essential step in securing Iraq’s future as a free democracy – and a new paradigm for the Middle East.

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