Christian agencies call for protection of religious minorites in Iraq

 The Christian Forum in Support of Persecuted Religious Minorities Worldwide is calling upon Coalition forces in Iraq to ensure the protection of Christians and other religious minorities. The Forum reports: during recent weeks several prominent leaders amongst Iraq's Shia Muslim population have publicly called for the creation of an Islamic state governed according to Islamic law (Sharia). Both Sheikh Mohammed al-Fartousi and Hojatolislam Moqtada as-Sadr, two of the most influential Shia leaders in the whole of Iraq, have specifically called for the Sharia to be applied to the country's minority Christian community of around three per cent of the population, as well as to Muslims. In southern Iraq, where the country's Shia Muslim majority are mainly concentrated, Islamists have already begun to take the law into their own hands and there are reports of Sharia being imposed at street level. Over 100 shops selling alcohol have been burnt down in Basra. Under Saddam Hussein's regime only Christians were permitted to sell alcohol although the shops had good customers amongst both Christian and Muslim communities alike At least two Christian shop owners were shot dead by Sharia vigilantes on 8 May, and there are unconfirmed reports of another owner and a Christian bystander also being killed. In some areas women are being forced to wear the veil and have been spat upon, vilified and even refused treatment at hospitals when they failed to do so. Christians in Basra report that looters have deliberately raided Christian homes and threatened that next time they will kill the occupants because of their faith. Christian girls in some parts of the city are now afraid to go to school in case they are kidnapped. Fearing persecution, some Christian families have already begun to leave Basra, returning to the country's Christian heartland around Mosul. Sources within the Syrian Orthodox Church report that in Baghdad one Christian family has been threatened with death unless they convert to Islam. The Forum says that Christians face hostility for numerous reasons now, including presumed links with the coalition forces of the 'Christian' west as well as Saddam Hussein's fallen regime under which they enjoyed a measure of protection from religious extremism. Even more vulnerable is the country's tiny Jewish population (estimated at being no more than 50) who are negatively associated with the state of Israel. Some Iraqi Christians fear that tensions may be exacerbated by the impending arrival of western evangelical (particularly American) aid agencies intending to engage in missionary as well as humanitarian work. In addition they fear that it is may create an imbalance in relations between Iraq's many Christian denominations, which have traditionally enjoyed good rapport. It says: "Coalition forces are too few to effectively police the country, restore order or protect religious minorities and other vulnerable targets from violence." Fr Nadheer, a Chaldean priest at the oldest and most influential church in Baghdad, has been three times to the local American commander, and once to General Jay Garner with two bishops to plead for protection for local churches with no apparent result. As well as facing the immediate prospect of Sharia vigilantism and religious intolerance, moderate and secular Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities are also concerned that their interests could be sidelined in the formation of a new Iraq in favour of the three main ethno-religious groups: Kurds, Sunnis and Shia. On 29 April a joint statement signed by leaders of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldean, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Latin-rite and Armenian Catholic churches (together representing all the major denominations in Iraq) gave voice to these concerns calling for a future Iraq which will "consider Christians as Iraqi citizens with full rights" and "guarantee the right to profess our faith according to our ancient traditions and our religious law". The Forum has received reports on the latest developments in Iraq from Forum members recently returned from the country and other regional sources. "We are seriously concerned about the situation facing moderate Muslims and religious minorities in Iraq" said Paul Cook, speaking on behalf of the Forum. "It is imperative that action is taken now to protect these groups and safeguard their future rights and freedoms." The Christian Forum in Support of Persecuted Religious Minorities Worldwide is a non-denominational organization launched in 2002 which brings together British Christian agencies concerned with issues of religious freedom to share information and co-ordinate action. Partner organizations involved in the Forum include Barnabas Fund, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Christians Aware, Church Mission Society (CMS), Churches, Commission on Mission of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CCOM), International Centre for Reconciliation at Coventry Cathedral, Maranatha Community and the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG).

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