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CURRENT ISSUE:  November 21, 2005VOL. 43, NO. 20Oakland, CA

Iraq promises church freedom

By Stacy Meichtry
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY—Iraqi President Jalal Talabani met with Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 10 and pledged to guarantee the rights of religious minorities amid concern that Iraq’s proposed constitution institutionalizes Islamic law.

“I explained to His Holiness that the Iraqi constitution will consider all Iraqis—Christians included—equal and will respect all religions,” Talabani said at a news conference after the meeting.

“All kinds of freedoms will be guaranteed for all,” he added without going into detail.

Religious freedom in Iraq has been a top concern for Vatican officials following the recent approval of Iraq’s draft constitution, which regards Islam as Iraq’s official religion and “a fundamental source of legislation.”

Iraqi Christians represent about three percent of Iraq’s population with 800,000 faithful, most of whom belong to the Eastern-rite Chaldean Church, which is in communion with Rome.

More than a dozen Chaldean bishops are currently in Rome conducting a synod expected to advise the pope on Christianity in Iraq.

Talabani said his 20-minute private meeting with Benedict centered on Iraqi democracy and quoted the pope as saying the constitution represented “progress” in Iraq.

According to a draft of the constitution that was approved during an October referendum, Iraq guarantees “the full religious rights of all individuals to freedom of religious belief and practice.”

But the document also calls for judges and experts in “Islamic jurisprudence” to sit on Iraq’s high court —- a clause that many critics regard as an opening to place Islamic clerics in control of Iraqi law.

“It’s very dangerous to say that (Iraqi law) must be compatible with Islamic law,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, in Iraq, who joined Talabani at the conference.

“Either Islam or democracy. You have to choose,” Sako added.
Muslim countries that base their legal systems on the Shariah, or Islamic law, often outlaw the converting of Muslim citizens to other religions. Some interpretations of the Quran suggest if such converts refuse an opportunity to recant, they should be put to death.

According to Dhimmi law, an Islamic code that applies to Jews and Christians, non-Muslims are allowed to practice their faith but are still subject to Islamic rule. The tension often occurs when Christians act on biblical commands to spread the gospel, and share their faith with Muslims.

The Vatican did not release a statement after the meeting, which took place with strict security measures that shut down traffic along the Via della Conciliazione, the main conduit into Vatican City.

Talabani expressed sorrow for the recent killings of two lawyers defending former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, on trial for crimes against humanity.

“I am very sorry that some colleagues, some lawyers — because I too am a lawyer — were killed,” Talabani said, adding, “We are ready to provide them with security, with protection, with bodyguards, but unfortunately they do not want to ask us, the government.”

The Vatican was an outspoken critic of the war in Iraq under Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II.

Following a meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Talabani said, “War is not the best way, but it was the only way to topple Saddam Hussein.”

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Sodano has sent a telegram to King Abdullah II of Jordan, expressing the pope’s condemnation of the triple bombings that killed up to 59 people in Amman, Jordan, on Nov. 9.

Cardinal Sodano said Benedict was “deeply saddened” by the attacks, which he described as “cruel acts of violence and disrespect for law and human life.”

The terrorist group Al-Qaida in Iraq issued a statement that claimed responsibility for the bombings.

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