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Timing is everything

Baghdad makes Christmas official while U.S. panel condemns lack of religious freedom

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

What was that up in the sky over Baghdad? Not the usual dark Apache helicopter but a brightly colored hot-air balloon. A Christmas balloon.

Fact: In a city park police closed repeatedly because it was a favorite spot for terrorists strapped with explosives, Baghdad held its first public celebration of Christmas and kicked off the government's first-ever declaration of Christmas as an official holiday on Dec. 20.

Iraq's Interior Ministry sponsored the event, complete with a decorated tree, costumed children, a waving Santa, and the hot-air balloon bearing an Iraqi flag and a poster depicting Jesus. This is the same ministry once bedeviled with Baathist holdovers and closet jihadists, the ministry that only a few weeks ago arrested 23 of its own officers under suspicion for working to reestablish the Baath party.

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Church leaders showed up for the ceremony, but it was clearly a secularized religious event. Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul Karim Khalaf waved away questions with a slogan of his own: "All Iraqis are Christian today!"

Dismiss this as a public-relations ploy if you will. In the downdraft of bad news from Baghdad it's easy to lose track of where Iraq is on the religious map in the Islamic world, to lose sight of the good news rising with a hot-air balloon.

This happened when the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) the same week recommended that Iraq be declared a "country of particular concern" (CPC) under the 10-year-old International Religious Freedom Act-citing Iraq for "ongoing severe abuses of religious freedom and based on the Iraqi government's toleration of these abuses."

In doing so members of the bipartisan commission lost sight of what progress Iraq's government has made since the commission recommended and the State Department designated Iraq under Saddam Hussein a CPC for three years (a move that may carry economic sanctions and other penalties), from 1999 to 2002, prior to the 2003 invasion. And it did so with only weeks to go before the country returns to the polls for the first time since 2005.

Despite its violence and turmoil, Iraq is the only country in the Arab world without the apostasy and anti-conversion laws of other Muslim countries and with a constitution that on paper guarantees religious freedom. Iraq is not ruled by a military junta, like Myanmar (also known as Burma), a country on the commission's CPC list. It does not outlaw Christianity (and Christmas) like Saudi Arabia, another CPC. It is not known to jail Christians for holding worship services as does CPC Eritrea (although it did under Saddam; in the latter days of his regime I met four church leaders held for months in a prison cell so small none of them could sit down for the crime of organizing new churches). It does not put to death Christians accused of blaspheming Muhammad as does Pakistan, also on the CPC roster.

That is not to say that Christians aren't targets of violence in Iraq. This magazine has documented much of that violence, most recently in the city of Mosul and Nineveh province. The point is that militants and terrorists in Iraq are making life hard for Christians and others-and, at the risk of stating the obvious, the Iraqi government and our own military that are at war with them.

For that and other reasons what to do about Iraq engulfed the commission in two years of infighting. In 2007 it voted 5-4 against the CPC recommendation; in 2008 it voted 5-4 in favor. Dissenting commissioners Michael Cromartie, Imam Talal Eid, Richard Land, and Leonard Leo have a footnote in the commission's December report (, stating that "a pattern or practice of recurring violence" requiring the action or complicity of government officials under the 10-year-old religious freedom law has not been established. What appear to be abusive or indifferent practices stem "from a serious lack of capacity," the note continued, and "shifts in the war's key flashpoints."

Holding together a bipartisan commission of Democrats, Republicans, and human-rights advocates of many faiths requires a skill something akin to holding together a coalition government of Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, and others-as the Iraqis have done since 2005. At this juncture the commission should see itself in their struggle rather than censure them for it.

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