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Published: Saturday, 8/7/2004

Tolerance latest Iraq casualty

THE attack on five Christian churches in Baghdad and Mosul were tragedies in two senses first, the casualties incurred among Christians and Muslims, and, second, the assault the attacks constituted on what little remains of Iraq s tradition of religious tolerance.

Pre-occupation Iraq, both during and before the Saddam Hussein period, had an atypical Middle Eastern reputation for religious tolerance. Many Christian sects and Jews, an estimated 700,000 or about 3 percent of the population, lived in a situation of relative religious liberty.

That is not to say that the situation of the Jews was not affected by the hostilities between Iraq and Israel, which caused many Iraqi Jews to emigrate to Israel, or that the government s and ordinary Iraqis attitude toward Christians was unaffected by the sometimes stormy relations between Saddam Hussein s regime and the West.

But there were reasons for a relative tolerance of the practice of religions other than Islam in pre-2003 Iraq. The first and oldest were the still existing traditions of the Ottoman Empire, which Iraq was part of prior to its independence in 1932.

The second was that the Ba ath Party, which governed the country after 1968, was a strictly secular party, socialist and not religious in orientation. The Ba athists tolerated no religious-based opposition, but it allowed religious practice in general, without especially favoring any particular faith.

A third important element for Iraqi Ba ath Party opposition to religion in politics was that, if it were to have become an important element, it would have favored the Shiite Muslims who represent 60 percent of the country, over the Sunni Muslims who account for 20 percent (including Saddam Hussein s ruling Tikriti clan).

All of this added up to an atmosphere, prior to the U.S. invasion, of relative religious tolerance, even though Saddam Hussein saw which way the Middle East wind was blowing and moved toward a more militant Islamic identification in recent years.

What is different now, which seems to be coming home to roost on Iraq s Christian minority, is the presence of American, British, and other forces easily labeled and attacked as Christian crusaders, drawing in part on some unfortunate Bush administration rhetoric.

The other new element is that the Iraqis armed resistance to U.S. occupation is being increasingly joined by non-Iraqi Islamic extremists. This group neither shares nor respects what remains of Iraq s traditional tolerance of Christians and Jews and has now opened fire on the churches.

Iraq s tradition of religious tolerance can resume when all of this is over, but by then people will have been killed, churches will have been destroyed, and practitioners of these faiths some of which date back to just after the time of Christ will simply have left the country.

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