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Alcohol Ban in Basra Triggers Fear Among Christians

by VR Sreeraman on September 5, 2009 at 12:06 PM
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 Alcohol Ban in Basra Triggers Fear Among Christians

Alcohol vendors among the shrinking Christian community of Iraq's mostly Shiite southern oil hub of Basra fear for their future after city councillors banned the sale of alcohol.

"Lawless people will use this decision to harm us because some Christians will refuse to close their shops, which are their only livelihoods," said Saher Yussef, a 40-year-old engineer.


"The authorities did not think of the consequences of their decision," he lamented.

Saad Firas, whose grandfather set up the family business, is angry.

"I have been running this shop for 20 years. My father took over the business from his father. I don't know what else to do," Firas said.

"And my clients consider the ban unfair."

Muslim merchant Hassan Mohammad is among the angry clients.

"Banning alcohol, is that democracy?" he asked as he criticised authorities for "meddling with people's basic rights instead of worrying about the power cuts" that plague the country.

On August 2, the Basra provincial council passed a decree stating that "anyone selling liquor, drinking in public, making or importing alcohol in Basra" would be fined five million dinars (4,270 dollars).

"Our decision is based on the constitution, which bans anything that violates the principles of Islam," Basra's deputy governor Ahmad al-Sulaiti said.

The constitution stipulates that "Islam is the state religion and the fundamental source of legislation," he said.

Elsewhere in Iraq however, including in the capital Baghdad, the sale and consumption of alcohol is authorised.

In fact on the eve of the holy Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, when liquor stores are usually shuttered and the sale of alcohol is prohibited, many people rushed to buy their stash of alcoholic drinks.

Two days after the Basra authorities voted for the ban, officials destroyed one of the dozens of liquor shops there, a warning of things to come if the ban was not heeded.

"This decision is the work of some religious factions who are dangerous for the Christians," said George Nasser George, a 58-year-old labourer.

Many people remember the chaos that erupted across Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Islamist militants held sway over the streets of Basra and the province of the same name.

Over a two-year period, more than 100 liquor shops were destroyed and dozens of Christians killed by Islamist militias, forcing half the 5,000-strong Christian community to pack and up flee, many to the autonomous Kurdish north.

For the Basra vote, the sole Christian city councillor, Saad Butros, was absent when the decision was passed by Sunni and Shiite factions, including supporters of Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Two councillors representing the secular Iraqi National List of former prime minister Iyad Allawi voted against the ban.

For Christian councillor Butros the authorities should have focused on resolutions addressing security and infrastructure problems rather than on the alcohol ban.

"The majority of Shiite parties who control Basra want to impose their religious ideas, rather than take decisions that serve the interests of the (whole) population," he said.

"Banning alcohol will not bring security nor will it produce essential services that are lacking in the province," he said.

"People don't care about who drinks and who doesn't. They are concerned about (the development of) investment projects and the removing of rubbish from the streets," Butros added.

Basra is Iraq's third largest city and like many major urban centres it is plagued with poor infrastructure, chronic power cuts and pot-holed roads while few of the city's one million residents have clean water.

The ban has meanwhile sent the price of liquor skyrocketing, and upset clients, shop owners said.

"A bottle of arak (an anise-flavoured drink) that sold for 10,000 dinars (nine dollars) now fetches 25,000 dinars (21 dollars)," said Mazen Mustafa.

"With the police on the lookout to enforce the ban, I am forced to sell booze from home," he added.

Source: AFP

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