09/05/2019 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Iraq’s Christians have learned the importance of caring about words. In a country torn by decades of violence, a few brief words can quickly differentiate friend from foe. The words of religious authorities carry even more weight, guiding others along a path of peace or conflict. When Iraq’s Grand Mufti — the highest Sunni Islamic leader in the country — speaks, people listen.
Last year, Iraq’s government officially declared Christmas a public holiday. It was an attempt at promoting inclusiveness, as Christians had just suffered yet another genocide at the hands of Islamic extremists. The Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Mahdi al-Sumaidaie, promptly issued a declaration prohibiting Muslims from joining in the so-called Christian holiday of New Years. He also warned Muslims not to offer congratulations to each other on Christian holidays.
This declaration was instantly condemned across Iraq by many government and religious leaders, regardless of party or religious affiliation. But then the head of the Shia Endowment, Ala’a Abd al- Saheb, made similar comments. He warned that because Christians allow men and women to mix in the same room, Muslims cannot attend any Christian events.
Alarmed, some Christian church leaders approached leading executive office government officials. They were concerned that these kinds of comments encouraged Muslims to disassociate with Christians, and that this practice reinforces the belief that Christians are second-class citizens.
The executive office filed a petition with the court. However, last month, the petition was rejected.
“The court has decided to dismiss the case which is related to Mahdi al-Sumaidaie because of a lack of evidence. (This) decision has been verified. Regarding Ala’a Abd al-Saheb, he came to court without any formal call and that is why he is being released,” said the official judicial decision.
On the one hand, Christians were amazed that the court even considered the case. Law is usually absent in Iraq, and those who express religious intolerance are tolerated. That the court would even consider this type of case was considered a positive outcome. Nevertheless, there was great disappointment in the court’s decision.
“I think the court believes that the head of Shia Endowments has the authority to say, ‘This is Halal (lawful)’ and this is ‘Haram (unlawful).’ He didn’t issue a document saying that celebration is prohibited; it is only on media. The mufti in Islam can say whatever he thinks, or whatever he wanted,” explained one local Christian observer.
Another believer expressed even stronger disappointment in the process, “[Most of] the Muslims were against the hate speech before Christians. My expectation is that both of them (the defendants) didn’t even attend the court!”
“The evidence is recorded on YouTube! But that the court should say that they don’t believe it is a reason for condemnation,” another Christian commented.
The process was a rare opportunity for Iraq’s judicial system to enforce constitutional provisions that protect Christians from this kind of hate speech. Instead, it was a missed opportunity. But Iraq’s Christians have become used to this kind of disappointment.
“These days, people are better than before,” said one Christian named Aaron. “I remember after 2003, when people had much more commitment to Imams. Whenever there was a fatwa, they didn’t even respond when we greet them.”
Still, as a father of three kids, he is concerned about this kind of speech. “I am living in a popular area where people are simple and follow Islamic leaders without even thinking of it. Regardless of whether the speech is right or wrong, definitely hate speech leads to problems and tension.”
YouTube, and other social media platforms, are filled with examples. “Most of the problems are happening on social media. Whenever there is hate speech, Facebook pages use that to gain likes, comments, and shares. That increases the page’s rank!” Aaron further explained.
Even so, there is hope. As Aaron stated, this is not 2003. Many Muslims are frustrated with how religious intolerance led to ISIS ruining their country. Even though the court ultimately sided with the clerics distributing hate speech, that does not mean the population is fully supportive.
“You can see on the comments that Muslims are divided into two groups. One is cursing Christians, while the other are mentioning the great memories they have with their Christian friends or neighbors,” concluded Aaron.