By WASHINGTON (ABP) — Iraq has a new interim constitution that offers high levels of protection for religious freedom — but one of its provisions still gives pause to some human-rights watchdogs.
After a delay due to last-minute objections by some of its Shia Muslim members, members of the Iraqi Governing Council signed the document March 8. The new Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) is supposed to provide a legal framework for the country between this summer — when American military leaders are scheduled to turn over authority to Iraqis — and the time Iraqis ratify a permanent constitution.
Thus, the TAL may be in effect for well over a year.
The new document pronounces Islam the nation's official religion, but names it as merely “a source” of law. It also provides broad protections for Western-style freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religious belief and practice.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released a statement March 8 praising the TAL's protections for freedom of conscience and other human rights, but also sounding a note of caution.
“The Commission notes that there was a substantial expansion in the articulation of rights from a narrow right of groups to worship in the draft TAL to the guarantee to every person freedom of thought, conscience, belief, and practice in the final version,” the statement said. “This emphasis on individual freedom is unique for the region.”
The statement went on to note that the commissioners are “concerned, however, by language in the Transitional Administrative Law requiring that legislation not be contrary to the 'universally agreed-upon tenets of Islam.' This provision could be used by judges to abridge the internationally recognized human rights of political and social reformers, those voicing criticism of prevailing policies, religious minorities, women, or others.”
The statement warned that similar provisions in Afghan and Pakistani governing documents have been abused by judges in those countries, who have used the legal leeway they provided to interpret laws in a theocratic manner.
Iraq had an essentially secular government under Hussein's rule, and Christians and other religious minorities enjoyed a higher degree of religious freedom than in many other majority-Muslim nations.
However, the country's Shia Muslim majority was often brutally repressed by Hussein's government, most of whose leaders were of Sunni Muslim heritage. Now freed from the rule of Hussein's Ba'ath Party, many Shiite clerics have moved to solidify their political power — stoking the fears of international religious-freedom advocates that Iraq may become a theocracy.
Other religious-liberty watchdogs have warned about such difficulties with securing religious freedom in the new Iraq. Bishop John Ricard, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' International Policy Committee, warned in late February that, in drafting a new Iraqi governing document, “If Islam is the official religion of the state…or, if Islam is the source for secular laws, as some propose, the religious freedom of minorities could be seriously circumscribed.”