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5/20/03 - RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE IN IRAQ - 2003-05-23

The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship has brought improvements in religious freedom in Iraq. New freedom was displayed when hundreds of thousands of followers of Shia Islam, Iraq’s largest religious group, participated in the annual pilgrimage to the holy cities Karbala and Najaf in April. It was the first time in three decades that Iraqi Shiites were not banned from making the pilgrimage.

Yet some members of Iraq’s minority religious communities, including Sunni Muslims and Christians, have expressed concern about Islamic extremism. Some Iraqi Christians have told Western news media that they have been harassed and threatened. There have also been unconfirmed reports of violence against Iraqi Christians.

Such intolerance has no place in the new Iraq, as President George W. Bush said in a speech to Iraqi-Americans:

“Whether you're Sunni or Shia or Kurd or Chaldean or Assyrian or Turkoman or Christian or Jew or Muslim -- no matter what your faith, freedom is God's gift to every person in every nation. As freedom takes hold in Iraq, the Iraqi people will choose their own leaders and their own government. America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture. Yet, we will ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected.”

Some of Iraq’s religious leaders have indicated that they value religious tolerance. Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, the Iraqi Shiite leader who recently returned from exile in Iran, said that while Iraq’s future system of government should “respect Islamic values,” it should also respect “the specificities of the components of the Iraqi population,” including religious minorities. This is a message that all Iraqis can take to heart.