GUNMEN in the western Anbar province of Iraq, on Monday, shot dead 22 Shia pilgrims who were on their way to Syria. Anbar is a Sunni-dominated region. The attackers took all the men from the bus before shooting them.
This latest apparently sectarian attack came less than a week after Iraqi religious leaders, at a meeting in Beirut, had emphasised their commitment to maintaining peace efforts through dialogue.
The meeting of the High Council of Religious Leaders in Iraq (HCRLI) was organised by the Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East, which is headed by Canon Andrew White, of St George’s, Baghdad.
Attending the three-day gathering were a number of Muslim and Christian leaders, including Shaikh Abdel-Halim al-Zuhairi, the chief religious adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki; and Ayatollah Sayyid Ammar Abu Ragheef, the chief of staff for Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shia community.
The HCRLI rejected suggestions for a safe zone for Christians in the north of the country. Instead, the meeting agreed, it was important for Christians to be kept safe within the community as a whole. “Christians are at the root of Iraq,” the meeting’s joint statement said. “They must not be frightened away.”
Also present was Sayyid Jawad al-Khoei, a member of a London-based humanitarian organisation, the al-Khoei Foundation. He said that there was a need to educate and enlighten young Iraqis, if peace was to return to their country. “The violence is created on the streets; so in the schools we have to think about how to increase dialogue between children so they know there is no difference between Sunnis and Shia. We must enlist the help of the media in this also.”
He said that social networking sites, as well as exhortations at Friday prayers, should be used to transmit the message of tolerance to young people.
Mr al-Khoei said that Saddam Hussein’s regime had “created great divides between Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. Today, there is an obvious desire among Islamic leaders to end the violence.”
The difficulties of achieving sectarian harmony in Iraq are exacerbated by the political system, in which the various parties and blocs tend to reflect religious backgrounds. Tension in the country as a whole is rising as the end-of-year deadline for the departure of all US troops approaches. One of the most powerful Shia leaders, Muqtada al-Sadr, who enjoys huge popular support, this week ordered his militias to end attacks on US forces.
A number of Sunni and Kurdish politicians, fearing increasing Iranian Shia influence in Iraq, are calling for US troops to remain beyond the end of December. Sadrists say, however, that any US servicemen remaining on Iraqi soil in January will be targeted.