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War imperils free worship among Iraqis • Saturday March 15, 2003

Palm Beach Post, Mar. 14, 2003 (Opinion)
By Steve Gushee, Palm Beach Post Staff Columnist

Our enemy, Saddam Hussein, provides considerable religious freedom to his people. Our friends, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, vigorously deny that fundamental right to theirs.

That’s just one more complicated bit of reality facing decision-makers in Washington.

Virtually everyone condemns the dictator of Iraq as an monster who must be disarmed and, ideally, removed from office.

Yet he rules a Muslim nation that is more open to religious diversity than most of its neighbors. His deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, is a Christian born in Mosul, known in Scripture as Nineveh. Christianity thrived in that land 700 years before Islam came to the Tigris-Euphrates valley.

Numbers are notoriously inaccurate, but estimates suggest that as many as 1 million Christians remain in Iraq today. Most are Chaldean Christians in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. There are Presbyterian, Reformed, Mennonite, other Protestant churches and numerous Orthodox Christians. The government recognizes 14 different Christian traditions.

Destroying Hussein almost certainly will endanger them all. They will be in the path of military action together with their Muslim neighbors. They may well become targets of Muslim anger and frustration after the war when religious tolerance may be but a fond memory.

Our friends in Saudi Arabia, in stark contrast to Hussein, forbid all non-Muslim activity. No Jewish, Christian or other religious organization is allowed in the kingdom.

The Wahhabi sect of Islam dominates the country. It promotes an extreme, rigid form of Islam that condemns all other religions and even those who follow other expressions of Islam. All are infidels to be converted or killed.

The Islam of Wahhabi, Osama bin Laden’s discipline, is widely taught through schools and mosques built in America and other countries with Saudi money. Some analysts argue that the religious and moral education of most American Muslim young people is shaped by Wahhabi beliefs.

The religious contradictions of American foreign policy are startling. Iraq boasts a degree of religious diversity rare in the region but is marked for regime change. Saudi Arabia’s religious fanaticism puts non-Muslims everywhere at risk, but we befriend its leaders.

All the while, we know that religious extremism and exclusivity is a prolific seedbed of terrorism.

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