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US bishops welcome pledge to respect religious freedom in Iraq

 Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, Chairman of the International Policy Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed recent statements by Ambassador Paul Bremer regarding "the importance of ensuring that religious liberty is fully respected in the new Iraq." According to Bishop Ricard, "the success of efforts to build a democratic, pluralistic and prosperous Iraq will depend on respecting the fact that Islam is the religion of the majority of Iraqis, while ensuring that full religious freedom for all, including minorities, is fully guaranteed. "If Islam is the official religion of the state, however, or, if Islam is the source for secular laws, as some propose, the religious freedom of minorities could be seriously circumscribed," he said. Bishop Ricard stressed that "religious liberty includes a panoply of rights; it cannot be limited to 'the freedom to practice religious rites' or 'the freedom to worship.'" "Religious freedom," Bishop Ricard explained, "applies both to religious bodies, such as the Shia, the Sunni and the Chaldean or Assyrian rites, and to individuals. If the law grants only group rights, it could open the possibility that the rights of individuals could be suppressed based on their religious beliefs or practices." he said he hoped "a new Iraq would reflect its rich diversity of religious beliefs, not just those of the majority." "Moreover," he added, "full religious freedom for all people and all religious bodies in Iraq would contribute to stability and help avoid sectarian conflict." Bishop Ricard cited as an example the humanitarian and development work of the Catholic Church in Basra and Catholic Relief Services and their efforts to promote interfaith and even intra-Muslim cooperation. "Without guarantees of religious freedom and continued U.S. support for these kinds of programs," he concluded, "the ability of minority religious bodies to bridge sectarian divisions and contribute to the rebirth of a democratic and prosperous Iraq could be undermined."