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August 9, 2005:

Worried Christian Leaders in Iraq
by Jon M. Sweeney

Iraqis are now writing their first real constitution. As Sunni and Shia Muslims compete on various fronts for the final language, the Shia majority (62%) is seeking to establish sharia (Islamic law) as the primary basis of civil law throughout the land.

Where would this leave Christians in the future Iraq? Christian leaders, most of them Catholic and Orthodox, are wondering…and worrying.

Many Americans are completely unaware that there are Christians in Iraq. We’ve heard so much about Islam in relation to the trouble in Iraq over the last fifteen years that we have often passed over the fact that there are nearly 750,000 Christians native to Iraq. Approximately 3% of all Iraqi citizens are baptized Christians. Catholics and Orthodox have been there for two millennia; Southern Baptists, Free Methodists, and Evangelical Presbyterians are much more recent arrivals.

The most visible Christian in Iraq in recent months is probably the Archbishop of Mosul, Basile Georges Casmoussa, a Syrian Catholic. A native Iraqi, Casmoussa is the spiritual leader of Mosul’s nearly 40,000 Syrian Catholics. Back on January 17, 2005, Casmoussa was kidnapped at gunpoint, stuffed into the trunk of a car, and sped off to an undisclosed location—all outside his church in Mosul. He was freed, reportedly without any ransom being paid to his abductors, twenty-four hours later.

Other prominent Christians in Iraq include the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Baghdad, Jean Sleiman; Syrian Archbishop of Iraq, Athanase Matoka; Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop of Iraq, Shlemon Warduni; and Monsignor Andon Atamian, the administrator for Armenian Catholics in the country.

The controversy over the constitution has been brewing for more than two years now. Back on April 30, 2003 the Vatican released a jointly-signed statement from Catholic and Orthodox religious leaders in Iraq which called for the as-yet-to-be-written constitution to guarantee equality and freedom of religion for all Iraqi citizens.

In 2004, an interim constitution was drafted and put into use by the interim Iraqi government. That document was hastily prepared so that it could be put in place before the U.S. hand-over of sovereignty in June of last year. At that time, many issues of civil law, including the issue of sharia as a set of precedents and guidelines, were avoided altogether.

President Talabani of Iraq has pledged that the new constitution will be put to a referendum before final ratification. But with the process of its creation now nearing an end, religious freedom appears more and more unlikely. Christian groups do not have the power or influence to overturn points of the final document in a referendum.

The diverse Christian community in Iraq suffered persecution of all sorts under the rule of Saddam Hussein. Today they have a fleeting amount of religious freedom, but a constitution that enshrines sharia as the basis of civil law will leave the future looking very uncertain. The Tablet, the world’s leading Catholic news magazine, reported in its July 23 issue that Chaldean Bishop Andreos Abouna has taken an appeal to the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor. Chaldean Christians make up the largest Iraqi Christian group in the country.

According to The Tablet, “[Bishop Abouna] warned that a pro-sharia constitution would massively speed up the exodus of Iraq’s Chaldeans [from Iraq].”

And so, the rest of the world’s Christians are watching and waiting along with our Iraqi brothers and sisters.

Jon Sweeney is an author and editor living in Vermont. His new book is

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