09/12/2014 08:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What Future for Iraq? Interreligious Debates at the Sant'Egidio Meeting


The crisis in Iraq begs a host of questions. What does religion have to do with the conflict? Is ISIS some abhorrent and aberrant form of religion or something else? Is it a Frankenstein monster, created and imported from outside Iraq or something with roots in the country and its history? What explains the stunning violence unfolding there: religion, politics or something else? How is this spilling over and transforming the Middle East? And what do religious beliefs, institutions and leaders offer as a way forward?

Rarely can the contending groups sit side by side and explore answers to these questions. But eight protagonists from the region did come together at the Sant'Egidio meeting in Antwerp this week. They came from Sunni and Shia Islam, Christian communities and Yazidis, Iraqis and Kurds, religious and political leaders. Raw passions flared and contradictions tumbled one upon the other. At times despair seemed the only possible reaction. Yet there were some glimmers both of clarity and of hope.

It is one thing to absorb media accounts of the horrors of war. It is another to hear firsthand someone who lives and witnesses them. The Patriarch of Babylon of the Chaldeans and parliamentarian Vian Dakheel, especially, made the horrific sufferings of Christians and Yazidis come to life. Passionate and graphic descriptions of kidnapping, rapes, murder, families separated, children killed before their parents, virgins sold for $150, houses destroyed, parents forced to abandon disabled children and old people to die alone and on and on were bone-chilling to hear. The situation is supremely urgent, and demands action from anyone with a heart to feel.

But why these horrors? And what to do?

Answers to questions as to how religion is involved were starkly different; the situation and the way it plays out are clearly very complex and seen very differently. There is no religious conflict in Iraq, someone argued categorically; politics deserves the full weight of blame. In contrast, others asserted that religious leaders inflame passions: Throw gasoline on a fire. And fear and hatred of "the other" have put down deep roots. Several asserted that barbarity is clearly not confined to religious people or conflicts and denied that there is a special Muslim animus against Christians. Others see special and difficult to control passions where religious beliefs are at issue. The discussion went round and round.

The bottom line, insofar as there was a common thread, was that what we see in Iraq must be recognized as a religious and sectarian conflict or conflicts, but highly politicized. Trying to separate out the religious elements from "pure politics" is complicated by the porous boundaries between state and religion in Islamic law and tradition. Growing fundamentalism is often linked to extremism and portrayed as religious even if its foundations go well beyond their religious roots. ISIS is seen as quite different. There were robust assertions that it has "nothing to do with Islam." But there were also uneasy questions as to what part religious teachings play, why Muslim leaders globally are not more vocal in their condemnation, and why Muslim communities reacted more strongly to cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed than to ISIS barbarity. One participant put it squarely: The reaction of the international Muslim community was "not up to our expectations." Muslim leaders, religious and political, they said, need to answer the question of where ISIS came from and how it is financed and sustained.

In any event, religion in many forms is an integral part of Iraq's history and present. One person argued that the entire country should be a UNESCO world heritage site in recognition of its spiritual roles. In short, no matter how complex the links, it is foolish to deny that religion is a significant part of the problem. Addressing relationships among religious leaders and communities must therefore be part of the solution.

Looking to solutions, citizenship, education, human rights, and strong and effective government are on the list of imperatives. Protecting people, rectifying wrongs, rescuing those who are kidnapped, and restoring order are the priorities. In Iraq's diverse society, a civic regime, with a proper constitution that is truly Iraqi, that guarantees equal rights and equal protection to all, is urgently and vitally needed. Curricula of educational institutions, especially those run by religious communities, need to be revised so that they focus on mutual respect among religious traditions and core civic values. A new theological language is needed, grounded on respect and capable of countering the very notion of hatred.

An audience member asked if it would have been better if Saddam Hussein had remained in power. Interestingly, after brief hesitations, the answers were a resounding no. Saddam was evil and the situation under him was untenable. Likewise there was unease but no categorical rejection of international intervention.

Moderator Mario Giro, a leader of the Community of Sant'Egidio, insisted that no matter how difficult the dialogue, and impossible the situation may appear, it is our moral duty to imagine a better, long term future. Counting the dead and apportioning blame cannot help. Somehow trust must be rekindled. With religious fundamentalism growing in power and force, the need to strengthen both the state and religious cooperation is ever more urgent. Weapons and armed intervention are part of the solution but they will be useless if there is no clear policy behind them. Like Noah's ark, Iraq is in grave peril and is seeking safety. It would be naïve to argue that religious dialogue will end the crisis, but it is an essential part of the solution.