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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Iraqis seek refuge in religion
Iraqi mosque
Iraq's regime has co-opted the growing religious mood


More and more Iraqis are going to the mosque; more and more Iraqi women are wearing the veil.

This is an unusual phenomenon in a country that has always been staunchly secular and is ruled by the secular Baath party. But for Iraqis, struggling with life after two wars and 12 years of sanctions, religion is slowly becoming a refuge.

Iraqi woman praying
More and more Iraqis are turning to religion
"We feel we need support, we need peace, so we pray," said a young Iraqi, who only gave his name as Wajed.

"Everybody seeks a refuge somewhere. Some people here turned to art, I turned to God," he adds.

The growing religious mood was first perceived as a threat by the Iraqi regime but instead of stopping it, the regime co-opted it and religious fundamentalism is not tolerated.

Religion is now used to promote the Iraqi president not only as an Arab leader but also a Muslim one. There is also an attempt to use religion to try to erase religious differences inside Iraq.


We are aiming at a better understanding of religion as a factor uniting people

Abdel Razzak al Hashimi
Baath party
A slight majority of Iraqis are Shia but they are under-represented and they have rebelled against the regime before.

"Iraq always been a secular state and the Baath has always been a secular party," said Abdel Razzak al Hashimi, a leading member of the Baath party.

"But we are aiming at a better understanding of religion as a factor uniting people. It's very important when the country is under threat, so that the people are united around the leadership and around the objectives of this leadership," he added.

A hero for Muslims

It all started in 1991, during the Gulf War, when President Saddam Hussein added the words "Allahu Akbar", Arabic for "God is great", to the Iraqi flag and promised he would liberate Jerusalem, a holy site for Muslims.

Pro-Palestinian demo in Baghdad
Saddam Hussein is seen as a hero for his support for the Palestinian cause
A few years later, the Iraqi leader, a Sunni Muslim, launched what is called the "Faith Campaign", making the studying of the Koran compulsory in schools across Iraq. In 1996, alcohol was banned in restaurants.

Today, again, demonstrations in Baghdad are calling on the Iraqi president to liberate Palestine.

He is sending thousands of dollars to Palestinian families who have lost relatives or their homes in the violence in the Palestinian territories.

By doing so he appeals not only to the Palestinians but also to other Muslims in the Arab world, who are disenchanted with their own rulers and see Saddam Hussein as a hero.

Birthday mosques

Sheikh Abdel Ghafoor al Qaysi, Vice-President of the Saddam University for Islamic studies in Baghdad, explains with great pride that every year, for the Iraqi leader's birthday on 28 April, which is celebrated in great pomp, a new mosque is inaugurated and construction is started on another one.

The Iraqi president's latest gift to posterity is the Saddam mosque, on the road to the airport.

Iraqi mosque
Some Iraqis complain about the amount of money spent on mosques
Construction started in 1999 and the mosque will be the biggest in the Middle East.

Before that, Saddam Hussein built the Mother of all Battles mosque, in reference to the name he gave to the 1991 Gulf War.

Surrounding the dome are eight minarets, four that are shaped like Scud missiles sitting on a launch pad and four like machine-gun barrels.

Inside the mosque lies a Koran inscribed in the blood of the Iraqi leader, or so Iraqi officials say.

The Iraqi president reportedly donated 50 pints of blood to write the holy book.

"Our leader, the great believer Saddam Hussein, always called on people to go back to religion and real values," said Sheikh al Qaysi.

"He is our example, our school in religion and faith. Our great project now is to start teaching the sayings of the Iraqi president in universities."


It's great to have more mosques - this way I don't have to go very far to pray

Sahar Saadi, mother-of-four
But Iraqi society seems to remain secular at heart. Iraqi artists, renowned in the region, are still painting nude bodies, which is unheard of in other Muslim countries.

At home, people still enjoy a drink or two if they can afford it and although the number of veiled woman is growing, it is still less common than even in Jordan or Egypt.

"It's great to have more mosques - this way I don't have to go very far to pray," says Sahar Saadi, a mother-of-four shopping at the Shorja market in central Baghdad.

"Religion is important for me, but it's good that nothing is imposed on anyone," says the middle-aged woman who does not wear the veil, or hijab.

In private, however, many Iraqis complain about the exorbitant amount of money invested in building these mosques - as well on the dozens of presidential palaces, while ordinary Iraqis barely have enough to survive on.

Although it might be a refuge, they know religion alone is not going to provide the answers, especially not if it is used as a tool by the regime.

This is the third in a series of features from inside Iraq by Kim Ghattas for BBC News Online.


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