Religions' Woes Didn't Disappear in the Wake of Saddam

Baghdad Archbishop Tells of New Tensions

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BAGHDAD, Iraq, DEC. 21, 2003 ( Baghdad’s Latin-rite archbishop said that no religious community in Iraq «knows what freedom means» and warned about new tensions between faiths.

«Even if in the West Saddam Hussein’s regime was referred to as a secular state, civil society was ruled by Islamic law, with serious consequences,» Archbishop Jean Benjamin Sleiman said in an AsiaNews report.

That former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz was Christian, was small comfort to other Christians. Aziz held the government post not because of his creed «but because he was a long and great childhood friend of Saddam Hussein,» Archbishop Sleiman noted.

«I must say, as part of the Christian minority community, we often obtained concessions not from Aziz, but from other Muslim Ministers,» the archbishop recalled. He cited the case of a schoolbook that had offensive statements against Christianity.

«Aziz did nothing in light of our protests. Finally a Muslim Minister ordered the book removed from the school shelves,» Archbishop Sleiman said.

With the end of Saddam’s regime, the «era of horizontal coexistence is over between various religious groups [that were] all crushed by the same power,» the prelate said. «But the step toward an inner acceptance of living together with different people still has not happened.»

«A Muslim will never speak badly about a Christian in his presence, yet this doesn’t mean he is convinced about living together with someone of a different faith,» Archbishop Sleiman explained.

He noted that Christians now are having a difficult time. The «provisional government authorities suppressed the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Now there is a religious council for Shiites, one for Sunnis, and one for Christian minority communities,» he continued.

«This change, however, is causing great difficulties for relationships between Christians,» the archbishop said. «On the minority council, for example, there are three Chaldean representatives, but no Orthodox one. What’s more, their representation is often carried in terms of their ethnic as opposed to their religious background, and this creates problems.»

A consequence of Saddam’s repressive policy is that no «religious community in Iraq today knows what freedom means.» Therefore, «to learn what freedom is» is the «great challenge for all faiths in Iraq today,» the Latin-rite archbishop said.

The archbishop also warned about fundamentalism which «is penetrating greatly into Iraqi society.» He mentioned the schools as an example. «Children are narrowly educated and often end up saying to their Christian classmates: ‘You are Christian and will go to hell, because only we Muslims will go to paradise.»

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