Deal W. Hudson
July 22, 2008
Two weeks ago I spoke with Bishops Mar Sarhad Jammo and Mar Bawai Soro about their plan to protect Iraqi Christians from violence and ensure religious liberty. The bishops expressed hope that one day the provisions of the Iraq Constitution protecting all religious minorities from discrimination and persecution could be implemented. In speaking with Manny Miranda, who recently returned from 12 months in Iraq, I found out that in the short term, legal remedies are not the answer.
Miranda served at the embassy in Baghdad for the U.S. Department of State as director of legislative statecraft, advising the country on the legislative process and constitutional reform. As he told me, the new Iraq Constitution is “meant to be a starting document,” which calls for further elaboration of over 63 additional legislative pieces, including some on religious liberty.
The Constitution envisions a “post-conflict situation” for elaborating and developing its principals and institutional infrastructure. However, not only is Iraq still in conflict, but police and legal institutions required to enforce the Constitution are in their fledgling stage. “Americans take for granted the institutions that protect and advocate religious liberty – they have no root in the Iraqi experience.”
As it stands the Constitution specifies Islam as the official religion of Iraq and the “basic source of legislation.” No law can be passed that conflicts with the “undisputed rules of Islam” or with the “principles of democracy.”
Although that tension may raise eyebrows among those who view Islam as essentially theocratic, Miranda says the problems on the ground are far removed from theoretical debates over the Constitution.
“The Constitution promises more than the situation can allow to be delivered,” Miranda summarized. “In contrast to a year ago, both the U. S. State Department and the Iraqi government are making this a very high priority, but focusing young government institutions on the problem will have limited success.” In 2007 Iraq was placed on the “watch list” by the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom, and prospects of going off that list in 2008 are not good.
I asked him if that means the situation is hopeless. “Certainly not,” Miranda answered. “There is a long tradition – and even pride – in Iraq of respecting religious minorities.” He explained that the protection of Christians and Jews in Iraq comes from tribal authority and custom and is desired by the older generation and educated Iraqis.
According to Miranda, those areas still controlled by one of the approximately 900 tribes are relatively safe for Christians to inhabit and practice their faith. “There is an established honor system among the tribes, a significant amount of Iraq is ruled this way – it was a significant policy mistake for the U.S. to say these tribes had no future.” Many of the tribes, interestingly, are cross-sectarian, encompassing several religious groups.
Miranda pointed out that the tribal system was always the source of stability in Iraq, even under Saddam, who kept them paid off. “It was a huge error for the U.S. to start recognizing sectarian leaders in Iraq when throughout its history, Iraqi stability was never a matter of religious identity.”
However, those areas controlled by Al-Qaeda or Shi’a gangsters are extremely dangerous for Christians, who are driven so far inside their homes “the children don’t even go outside to play.” Sometimes Christians disguise themselves as Kurds to avoid harm.
Ninety-five percent of the violence done to Christians comes from foreigners in the Al-Qaeda network – predominantly from Syria. “If you destroy Al-Qaeda, most of the problems for Iraqi Christians will be over,” Miranda claimed.
Al-Qaeda violence against Christians has backfired, alienating less extreme Sunnis, creating more support for the U. S. presence, and further isolating the terrorist network as a foreign presence in Iraq. Most of the stories of Christians – even children – being crucified or cooked alive are acts of Al-Qaeda, not of indigenous Iraqis. But the recent killing of Chaldean Archbishop Rahho was carried out by gangsters, presumably Shi’a, who kidnapped him for refusing to pay protection money.
Al-Qaeda itself would actually rather hurt the Shi’a whom they consider apostates. The Shi’a who have become gangsters prey upon the least-protected groups in Iraq, which include Christians. They have no organized militia, and the police force does little to protect them. “Their motivation is simply power and money, not religion.”
My conversation with Manny Miranda confirms in me the belief that the plan advanced by Bishops Jammo and Soro is a comprehensive – and promising – solution to the problem faced by Iraqi Christians. The police and the courts cannot protect them in the short run. As Miranda put it, “There is a police force, but the last thing they are going to protect are churches.”
If Christians are not living in an area protected by tribal authority against Al-Qaeda or Shi’a gangsters, they are at constant risk. Christians, as a minority, may have no other choice but to create an “autonomous area” where they can use the resources of government to protect themselves and their religious liberty. Let’s hope the White House, the U. S. State Department, and the Iraqi government are looking seriously at the bishops’ proposal.
As Miranda made clear, nothing is more important than eliminating Al-Qaeda from a country that has long taken just pride in its tradition of religious tolerance. And unless equality in all sectors of Iraqi society is guaranteed Constitionally, the problems for Iraqi Christians will continue.