Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Activists Defy Extremists in Call for Tolerance

Female civil society campaigners work with clerics from different faiths to promote dialogue and unity.
By Haider al-Musawi
With sectarian tension growing by the day, the Iraqi women’s NGO Al-Khansa recently sought to do its bit to counter the trend by organising a conference on religious tolerance and dialogue in Najaf.

For three days last month, a hotel hall in the holy Iraqi city teemed with 90 mainly female human rights activists and journalists, as well as clerics and religious scholars.

The event attempted to bring together Iraqi Muslims and Christians in a common front against sectarian violence.

Due to security concerns, the meeting had to be postponed several times.

The idea for the conference emerged following the violent reactions to the controversial speech of Pope Benedict, which appeared to associate Islam with violence. The speech upset many Muslim believers in Islamic countries all over the world.

In Iraq, the furore over the Pontiff’s remarks made the already tense situation for Christians worse. While protests in Najaf remained peaceful, demonstrators in Basra burned an effigy of the Pope. Christians felt increasingly targeted by Islamic extremists, prompting al-Khansa - which campaigns on women’s issues and human rights - to set up the dialogue meeting.

“We don’t react to a speech of the Pope by setting churches on fire and expelling our Christian brothers. We try to help Iraqi people get out of their current misery,” said Layla al-Rubai, head of al-Khansa.

Islamic, Christian and secular women NGOs from the provinces Najaf, Baghdad and Babil attended the conference. All were urged to speak out against violence and to call for unity among Muslims and Christians as well as Sunni and Shia.

In nine workshops, the participants discussed different aspects of religious life and tolerance and of Christian and Muslim co-existence.

The situation for Christians in Iraq has deteriorated considerably since the fall of the former regime. Whereas in the past, Christians lived peacefully with the Muslim majority, they have been subject to threats and attacks by Islamist extremists over the past months.

Many have fled the capital for the north to areas like Iraqi Kuridstan. Several new churches have been built in Ankawa, the Christian quarter of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. Crosses on church roofs illuminate the streets at night, a sight unthinkable in Baghdad these days.

Other Christians have left Iraq for good, making their way to neighbouring countries with Christian communities, like Syria, Lebanon or Armenia. Some have even headed for Europe and America.

Nidhal Hanna, head of Taqadum (progress) women rights NGO in Baghdad, says she feels safe amongst her Muslim colleagues, but has problems outside the organisation, which is why she is set to join other members of her community in Erbil.

She recalls a time when the country’s different faith groups got on well, “My parents have lived in Iraq all their life, and I don’t remember being offended by Iraqi Muslims. We studied together and there was no discrimination. I used to attend Islamic education and Koran classes at school.”

Islamic clerics who attended the Najaf conference suggested that Muslim radicals were largely responsible for Islam’s worsening reputation in the western world.

”Islam is religion of tolerance not terror,” said Ali Abdul-Rahim, a Shia cleric from Najaf. “We don’t represent those who kill civilians and claim to be Muslims.”

He believes that clerics from all Iraq’s communities should join together to campaign for unity in order to “build a new Iraq free of violence”.

Nadin Boutros, a Christian woman from Babil who attended the conference, is convinced that such events will help bring religions closer. “The role of NGOs is not only to educate the public how to vote and about women’s rights. We can do more because we interact with the people,” she said.

Another conference will be held in January. Cleric Abdul-Rahim said that over the holidays Christians should ask God “to bring peace and aid to Muslims”.

Haider al-Musawi is an IWPR contributor in Iraq.

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