September 14, 2005

Iraqi Religious Minorities Worry About Proposed Constitution

Iraqi Religious Minorities Worry About Proposed Constitution

BY ASHTAR ANALEED MARCUS                                                                                         © 2005 Religion News Service

(RNS) Leaders of some Iraqi religious minorities say the second article in the proposed constitution, which discredits laws that contradict the laws of Islam, could endanger their autonomy.

"Who will interpret these Islamic laws?" said Dr. Suhaib Nashi of the Mandaean Association Union. "We're putting a couple of people (in charge)who will supervise any law that will come from Parliament."

Mandaeans, who follow John the Baptist as their prophet, represent a part of Iraq's tapestry of religious diversity. Sects of Christianity have existed in Iraq since before the nation was formed. Iraq is also the only home to the Shabak and Yezidis, whose faiths have elements of both Christianity and Islam.

"We need some sort of secularism, which is destroyed completely in (the second article)," Nashi said. Mandaeans are not recognized in the new constitution, he said. They are also not recognized in the Quran, the holy book of Islam.

Unlike the Mandaeans, the Assyrians are recognized in the proposed constitution. But Michael Yoash, a Christian Assyrian who is a leader of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project, said many members of his religious community are not satisfied. "We don't know how strong Islam is going to be, but we think it's going to be very strong," said Yoash.

Representatives from minority religions intend to work with one another and "try to really express our disapproval with that type of language in the constitution," Nashi said.

An Islamic law that applies to Jews and Christians, Dhimmi law, permits non-Muslims to practice their faiths. But these minority faiths are still subject to Islamic rule. The new constitution would rename Iraq's Christians, identifying them by faith and not ethnicity. This, some fear, could make them subject to Islamic law.

Some non-Muslims take hope from a statement immediately following the constitution's second article calling Islam the official religion of the state. It says that no laws shall be passed that violate the principles of democracy.

"We don't know what it would imply. It's vague," said Nina Shea of Freedom House, a nonpartisan civil rights advocacy group based in Washington. "But it's better language and probably the best we can get because it's qualified with the principles of democracy."

It's an improvement and closer to the language in the temporary constitution, Shea said. "If it's Shariah, Islamic law, that's a problem because it would override, trump all laws."
Christians Sentenced for Allowing
to Attend Sunday School

BY HOLLY LEBOWITZ ROSSI                                                                                        © 2005 Religion News Service

(RNS) Three Indonesian women who ran a Christian Sunday school program were convicted and sentenced Thursday (Sept. 1) to three years in prison for allowing Muslim children to attend their school.

The judges cited the Child Protection Act of 2002, which forbids "deception, lies or enticement" of children that might lead to their conversion.

The program, called "Happy Sunday," was run out of the homes of the three women, Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun. Launched in September 2003, the program's purpose was to provide Christian education for Christian students. As it grew in popularity, though, the women admitted some Muslim students who had verbal consent from their parents.

According to media reports, none of the Muslim students converted to Christianity, and the teachers sent home any students who did not have parental permission to attend.

The women were arrested in May after their school was closed by the Muslim Clerics Council. According to the human rights organization Jubilee Campaign USA, based in Fairfax, Va., the Clerics Council and other Muslim groups shut down 35 churches in August and at least 60 in the past year.

Religious freedom experts worry that the conviction signifies a shift in the attitude toward religious minorities in Indonesia, which is home to the world's largest Muslim population.

"It's especially troubling and worrisome since it occurred in Indonesia, a country long known for its relative religious freedom," Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, told Compass Direct, a Christian news organization that monitors religious freedom around the world.

"If it signifies the future direction of the country, the consequences will be terrible," he said.
U.S. Air Force Issues Interim Guidelines on Religion

BY ADELLE M. BANKS                                                                                                     © 2005 Religion News Service

(RNS) The U.S. Air Force has released new interim guidelines urging its military members and civilian employees to protect the free exercise of religion.

The guidelines, issued Monday (Aug. 29), were called for in a June report that investigated the religious climate at the Air Force Academy, an Air Force spokeswoman said, but affect the entire military force.

The rules direct commanders and other leaders to avoid actions and language that might lead to the impression that they are officially endorsing or disapproving of individuals' choices regarding religion. Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called the guidelines "a welcome and necessary step toward addressing the recent and troubling reports of anti-Semitism and religious discrimination within the corps." But he added that they should be considered only a first step: "Their true value will not be realized until they are fully implemented."

But Mikey Weinstein, an academy graduate and critic of the institution's religious practices, said the new rules are insufficient.

"Until the Air Force begins to seriously, honestly and openly address the unconstitutional proselytizing at the academy and its bases, these guidelines are only a set of nice words," he said in a statement. "Our airmen and women deserve action."

The guidelines relate to issues such as religious accommodation, e-mail communication and public prayer.

"Public prayer should not usually be included in official settings such as staff meetings, office meetings, classes, or officially sanctioned activities such as sports events or practice sessions," the guidelines read.

During special, "non-routine" ceremonies, such as changes of command, "a brief nonsectarian prayer" is permitted, the guidelines say.

The rules offer cautions for religious expression in official communications. "It is important to avoid the reasonable perception that any official e-mail or computer posting implies that the Air Force supports any one religion over other religions, or the idea of religion over the choice of no religious affiliation," the guidelines read.

Jennifer Stephens, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, said final guidelines are expected to be adopted in the fall after additional guidance is received from Air Force commanders.

Poll Shows Democrats Losing Effort to Appear Religion-Friendly

BY KEVIN ECKSTROM                                                                                                   © 2005 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Democrats are losing their effort to convince voters that they take religion seriously, especially among independent voters who say the party has become less "friendly" to religion, according to a new Pew poll.

At the same time, voters seem concerned that religious conservatives among Republicans, and secularists among Democrats, have too much sway in the two parties. Independents seem more concerned about religious conservatives in the GOP than secularists among Democrats.

The poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that fewer than one-third of voters see the Democrats as "friendly" to religion -- down from 40 percent last year. The drop has been sharpest among independents, down to just 24 percent from 43 percent last year.

The GOP continues to be seen as friendly to religion by 55 percent of Americans, a figure that has changed little since 2003.

Roughly one-third of both Republicans and Democrats say religious conservatives and secularists have too much power within their parties, and core loyalists in both parties are equally critical of the other.

Two-thirds of those surveyed said liberals have "gone too far" in trying to keep religion out of schools and government. Respondents were more evenly split -- at about 45 percent each -- on whether Christian conservatives have "gone too far" in trying to impose their religious values on the country.

Bare majorities of about 52 percent said Republicans are more concerned with protecting religious values and that Democrats are more concerned with preserving individual freedoms.

The poll of 2,000 adults, conducted July 7-17, has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points.