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.

What exactly do the evangelical groups do? Are they handing out food and Bible tracts?

They do all that. They will distribute a lot of Bible tracts, they will do a lot of humanitarian things. This is the way they entice people. In Jordan, where I work, there is more of this happening. The country will invite them in because they bring in money. In the long run, for the local churches, our churches, it's not going to be for the good of the Christians.

What would the typical attitude of an Iraqi Muslim be if they were handed a Christian tract?

For the Muslims, they do not accept at all. They consider it completely against their religion, something forbidden. It could happen in certain cases, of course. But as a rule, the general populace will not accept it.

In the long run, they will feel more and more this feeling of resentment-that this is infiltration from the U.S. or the West into their own religious thinking and life.

Have you heard of any instances where an evangelical relief group would withhold food or medicine until they gave someone a tract, or something like that?

No, I cannot give you definite details like that. I don't think they would do such a thing. But they would certainly try to get them animated to join them. In a place in Baghdad where we have Dominicans [a Catholic religious order of priests], where many people go to church, very near that place there is a new center that has opened. They are benefiting from the situation so they can move in in their own way.

Do evangelical groups have workers who speak the language?

Definitely. They have people from the Middle East--Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese.

Have American soldiers treated Muslim shrines respectfully? Any American actions that have desecrated Muslim sites?

I never heard anything like that.

How has war affected all ordinary people in terms of food, shelter, hospitals, freedom of the press?

Taking the last point, more and more there is freedom of the press. But as far as the economic situation, those who have money carry on. The streets are filled with shops selling their goods, and life seems to be normal. On the other hand, the people who are unemployed, their situation is not good at all. They don't see any way out. This has been going on since the time of Saddam and the embargo.

Attacks continue, resistance is so organized, fear continues more and more. Unless the new government succeeds in being strong and open-minded, secular to some extent, not giving chances to one ethnic group more than to another.

What are the chances of there being a more secular government?

The man who is prime minister was a student at Baghdad College, run by the Jesuit fathers, for three years. Even the president himself was a student at Georgetown in Washington, D.C. [Ayad] Alawi, the prime minister, is a secularized Shiite. If he continues and is moderate and brings together the threads of different ethnic groups, this could be a way out of the impasse. It remains to be seen how he will gain support from the populace. If they consider him too pro-American, especially with the fundamentalist group moving in, God help us.

What do you hope for Iraq's future?

I remain hopeful. We know if we put our trust in God, he will be with us. I think Iraq can survive. My big hope is that there will be a change of mentality in American politics for the future, and it will not take too much sides with Israel. Because this is a source of problems. I think it has fueled a lot of resentment in the fundamentalist circles of Muslims in the world, and 9/11 is connected. Also, they see an expansion of U.S. power--in the markets and control over Middle Eastern politics. That is the political side. For the religious side, the people behind 9/11--we know they're Muslim fundamentalists, and these people will be against what they see as pagan, anti-religious things.
The Muslim fundamentalists equate Christianity and the West. For example, they do not like the way Christians dress, it's not modest enough. August 2, 2004 update: You think the people who planned the explosions on Iraqi churches are not Iraqi Muslims who have been living in, say, Baghdad for decades? No, we've never seen such a thing in all our lives. They not the real Muslims we know. It's definitely an outside influence. What will Iraqi Christians do now? Will they continue going to church, or worship in their homes?

It's hard to say. But I think they will be very much afraid to go to their churches. It makes us really afraid about the future for our Christians. We have to keep praying hard and hoping there will be changes.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad