The horrific human rights abuses perpetrated by Saddam Hussein as leader of Iraq are well-known. Less well-known is the fact that Saddam's stance toward Christian churches was relatively benign, and his regime cracked down on violence against the country's Christian minority, mainly Chaldean Catholic and Eastern Orthodox believers. Now that Saddam's secularized government has been toppled, minority faiths may be in danger from fundamentalist Islamic groups.

Fr. Clarence Burby is an Iraqi Jesuit priest who works with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. When Beliefnet spoke to him in March 2003, as the war began, he voiced concerns about the future of religious tolerance in Iraq. When we spoke to him again on July 22, 2004, he reported anonymous threats against churches in Baghdad. Ten days later, on Sunday, August 1, several churches in Baghdad were bombed. We reached Fr. Burby today (August 2) to update his July interview in light of the bombings.

How were Iraq's Christians treated under Saddam?

He was not against Christians. He patronized churches--he helped in the development of certain projects in the church. He patronized them in the sense that he supported them.

About how many Christians are in Iraq now?

I can't tell you exact numbers, but many have been emigrating from the north to the center, near Baghdad. A lot have left the country since the time of the embargo and the deteriorating economy. A lot have ended up in Jordan, waiting for their papers and visas to leave the country.What kind of Christians are they?

For the most part, Chaldeans and Assyrians. They are the Catholic and Orthodox churches.

You used to travel from Jordan to Iraq quite frequently, to assist the church in Baghdad, correct?

Especially from the late 1990s, I've been going regularly, yes. I did pastoral work. I taught in the Chaldean seminary in Baghdad. I preached in different churches.

Have you visited Iraq since the war began?

Yes, I went there in late January 2004.

What was it like in general?

Iraq today, after the war and the American occupation, is really worse off than it was before Saddam's defeat. It worked out just like I expected--the situation is far worse, the overthrow of Saddam's regime has caused chaos in the country and no security. The future is very much unknown.

What is the situation with churches in Iraq?

The churches continue. Church life continues. People do go to church in good numbers, though there is always the fear about what will happen if they come and go. For example, girls might be attacked. These things have been happening.Women have been attacked as they go to church?

Yes, either they will stop them and try to get a ransom for them.

Who stops them?

People from the country itself, because there is so much unemployment, so much feeling of not knowing the future, they make use of all sorts of ways and means. It's not so much against Christians as such, but it's because they're in a state of insecurity and instability.As I see it, the Islamic fundamentalist armed resistance coming from outside, whatever its source, is becoming very strong. It's really exploiting the unrest and the growing resentment within the country against the occupation.

What are Muslim-Christian relations in Iraq like right now?

It's hard to tell right now what direction it will take. But in the future, the Islamic fundamentalist resistance, which is moving on, this could fuel ill feeling against Christians. And could instigate attacks against them. Already we have heard of threats against one church or other.

What kind of threats?

That they will bombard the church, or knock it down, and so on. The source will be unknown--the threats will come through telephone, and [no one knows] from where it comes. I think the Islamic fundamentalist armed resistance is coming mostly from outside.

From Saudi Arabia or Iran?

Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the movement of Bin Laden. So it's hard to tell exactly if it comes directly from Iran or Saudi Arabia. But I would say there is definitely fundamentalist armed resistance. Even before, during the time of Saddam, there was a movement against any type of interference in the country.

It's so well-organized, the attacks, so it seems it's not just something from inside the country.

Do Iraqi Muslims feel the war is in part like a Christian crusade?

I don't think so, but there are threats against churches. And foreign evangelical groups are opening new centers and churches. They are benefiting from the opening of the borders and the occupation. This will only lead to more feeling of resentment against the local Christians.

Are they Protestant groups from America?

They are Protestant groups. I can't fix it as such as coming from the States. But they are international, they could be connected with America. But they could be Middle Easterners, but connected very much with Protestant groups abroad. That would cause the local Muslims to think of the Christians as pro-U.S., pro-Western, and--in one way or another--as agents of the occupation. For simple people, they don't think it out completely. They see connections, and where there's instigation from outside, then they will more and more feel this way about Christians, feeling resentment against Christians.