In sign of stability, Sunni-Shi’ite marriages on rise again in Iraq
BAGHDAD - Muhanad Talib, a Sunni Muslim, married his Shi’ite bride because she was a “suitable woman’’ for him. It also didn’t hurt that their vows made them eligible for a $2,000 payout from the government.
Talib and his wife are among more than 1,700 newlywed couples who have accepted cash from a government program that encourages Sunnis and Shi’ites to tie the knot. The government has held 15 mass weddings for intersect couples from all over Iraq, with the most recent taking place last month at a club in western Baghdad once used by Saddam Hussein’s army.
While the Iraqi government doesn’t track marriages bridging the two major Muslim sects, experts say mixed couples are on the rebound after a dramatic decline during the days of heavy violence. The rise, or rather the return, of mixed marriages appears to be one more sign that Iraqi society is gradually recovering from the war, and that things are more peaceful than they have been in years.
As security improves, Iraqis are returning to their homes in mixed neighborhoods and spending more time at offices, universities, and other places where they meet their future spouses, said Shi’ite cleric Sayyid Ahmed Hirz al-Yasiri in Baghdad’s Shi’ite stronghold of Sadr City.
“There was a time when families were reluctant to consent to such marriages because of concerns created by certain conservative people from both sects,’’ he said. “That is over now and things are getting back to normal, like they were before the fall of Baghdad. In the past two months, I married 40 to 50 Sunnis, including 20 mixed weddings.’’
Marriage in general is coming back into strong favor. Official figures show that 274,014 couples were married in 2007, when sectarian violence was raging. That jumped to 357,593 last year when violence waned. In the first three months of this year, 62,626 marriages were recorded across Iraq, excluding the semiautonomous Kurdish region.
Sheik Hamid al-Adhami, a Sunni cleric and marriage official, said he’s marrying four to five couples a month, two or three of whom are mixed sect. Two judges - Ahmed al-Azzawi in the civil court in Baghdad’s central commercial district of Karradah, and Karim al-Ithawi in the appeals court in Baghdad’s eastern Rusafa district - both said that more people are getting married, and that mixed marriages are now as common as same-sect ones.
The 14-century-old animosity between the sects grew out of a dispute over the succession of Prophet Muhammad. Yet mixed-sect marriages were very common in Baghdad; religious identity was less important than allegiance to Saddam Hussein.
In February 2006, a revered Shi’ite shrine in Samarra was bombed. Death squads slaughtered people and hundreds of thousands fled the increasingly segregated capital. The incident marked a new high in violence between the sects.
A few months later, the Sunni vice president started a program doling out $2,000 to any Sunni-Shi’ite couple that tied the knot, in the hope that love would help overcome war.
It’s no small savings to get help footing the bill for expensive weddings in a nation where nearly one in four people live below the poverty line, defined as living on $2.50 or less per person a day, according to a study released in May by the Central Statistics Authority.
Hind Khalaf, an Iraqi women’s activist, said mixed marriages never completely disappeared from society, but dropped off during the worst years of violence.
To apply for the money, mixed couples write to Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi’s office with legal proof of their union. They are handed the cash in an envelope during a mass wedding celebration.
Raad Karim, a Sunni university professor who married a Shi’ite, received the money last month on a white stage adorned with purple fabric and flowers.
“We have to resume our Iraqi traditions even though terrorists are trying to erase them,’’ Karim said.