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Mar 6 2005
Iraqi Christians Nominate Top Shiite Cleric for Nobel Prize

Iraqi Christians nominate top Shiite cleric for Nobel Peace Prize

Associated Press

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - A group of exiled Iraqi Christians in the United States have launched an online petition nominating Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, drawing more than 6,000 signatures from around the world.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani "gave Muslims all around the globe a good example how to follow peaceful ways to resolve complex social (and) political challenges that face them, condemning terror and emphasizing ... rule of law," the petition said.

Al-Sistani, 75, is Iraq's most-revered Shiite cleric and also a symbol of Shiite political power. He has spoken out repeatedly since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, opposing anti-American violence and calling for an end to conflict, including a bloody summer uprising by rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The petition was initiated by members of the Iraqi Chaldean community in El Cajon City, San Diego, who belong to one of Iraq's tiny Christian minorities.

"We are Chaldeans, but we are part of Iraq," Hanna Kalabat, one of the petition writers told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We support everyone who serves the country regardless of his religion or ethnicity ... I am born a human being, and my loyalty is to humanity."

Shiites have been targets of dozens of mass suicide bombings and attacks blamed on Sunni insurgents that are widely seen as efforts to spark a sectarian civil war. Al-Sistani is believed to be a major force preventing an all-out confrontation between the two sects with his repeated calls on Shiites to refrain from retaliating.

"After the occupation started, problems surfaced between Shiites and Sunnis and between Shiites themselves, but we had a wise man, Mr. Sistani, who prevented bloodshed and ridded us of the evil of civil war _ this is the main reason behind the nomination," Kalabat said.

Despite insurgent warnings not to take part in Jan. 30 elections, al-Sistani issued an edict deeming voting a "religious duty." His call was largely heeded, with millions of Shiites inside and outside Iraq heading to the polls.

Al-Sistani was responsible for forging the main Shiite United Iraqi Alliance that emerged with a majority in the January vote.

Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, are poised to take power for the first time after decades of Sunni domination. Christians are believed to make up just 3 percent of the population.

The frail, white-bearded cleric has millions of followers, who decorate their homes, stores and offices with his picture in a black robe and turban. He is seen as a spiritual figure who guides Shiites from his home in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Al-Sistani runs a Web site that answers religious questions in English, Arabic and Persian.

Kalabat, who became a U.S. citizen in 1986, fled Iraq in 1963 when the Baath Party assumed power. Before retiring he taught at San Diego City College.

By Sunday, More than 6,500 people from countries ranging from Fiji to Sweden to Saudi Arabia had signed the petition. They included Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and atheists.

According to Kalabat, al-Sistani's contributions to peace are not only local, but international as well.

"He has many writings promoting world peace, and we are in the process of collecting them to support our plea," he said.

The petition is also signed by the Organization of Civil Society in Iraq, a group of activists from different Iraqi sects and ethnic groups who came together shortly before the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.

Asked how realistic petition writers thought al-Sistani's chances are, Kalabat said: "We believe he deserves it, and we hope this dream will be realized."

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