Tens of thousands of Shia Muslims gathered for Friday prayers on April 18th outside a mosque in an area of Baghdad formerly called “Saddam City.” This was the first time since 1998 that Iraqi Shia Muslims were allowed to hold prayers outside the mosque.
This week, even larger crowds of Shia have been gathering in the Iraqi city of Karbala. They are commemorating the death in Karbala of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. This is one of the holiest times in the Shia Muslim calendar. But for years, the Saddam Hussein regime banned Shia from making the pilgrimage to Karbala.
Even worse, Saddam Hussein persecuted Shia Muslims and members of other faiths in Iraq. His regime killed senior Shia clerics, desecrated Shia mosques and holy sites, and interfered with Shia religious education. There are reports that Saddam Hussein’s forces killed many Assyrian and Chaldean Christians in northern Iraq. And the few Jews not already driven out of Iraq were forced to live in a climate of anti-Semitism promoted by the regime.
Now that Iraq has been liberated by the U.S.-led coalition, all Iraqis are free to practice their faith as they choose. But Iraqis will need to take steps to ensure that this continues to be the case. As Nasiriyah Shia cleric, Sheik Ayad Jamal al-Din put it, this will require a “system of government that separates belief from politics.”
Iraqis have already begun a series of meetings to discuss the country’s new government. The goal, said President George W. Bush, is a free Iraq that respects basic rights: “Free societies do not nurture bitterness, or the ideologies of terror and murder. Free societies are founded on the belief that every life has equal value.”
One thing is clear: Whatever form Iraq’s new government takes, an essential component will be freedom of religion.