March 21, 2003: Fr. Clarence Burby is an Iraqi Jesuit priest who has worked for ten years in Jordan and frequently visits Baghdad. In a phone call from Amman, Fr. Burby described how, despite isolated and troubling anti-Christian outbursts in Iraq, the country--and Saddam's regime--have generally been tolerant of Christians.

Could you describe your involvement with Christian churches in Iraq?

I'm of Iraqi origin. I have worked as a Jesuit in Iraq for four years. I lived in Iraq before I joined the Society of Jesus. My work has been in teaching, mainly at a high school in Baghdad called Baghdad College.

It was taken over by the government in the late 1960s. I continued there after the departure of American Jesuits (who were expelled in the 1960s) because as an Iraqi I was able to. This was just around the time when Saddam Hussein was coming to power with the Ba'ath party.

Though you're in Jordan now, you've visited Iraq often in recent years. What have you done there?

I have been going practically every year, about twice a year. Each time for about one or two months.

I taught a semester at the seminary college called Babel College. I also did a lot of pastoral work in different churches-preaching, lectures, sermons, pastoral work with priests. I also did projects like helping a priest get computers in one of these churches, to help young ladies of poorer families get training, as well as to help the parish. The situation in the country has been very difficult because of the embargo.

How has life been for Iraqi Christians and other non-Muslims under Saddam Hussein?

With regard to Christians and churches, there's been peace with regard to his politics. There was no religious persecution; there was tolerance. The regime of Saddam Hussein has friendly relations with church leaders.

On the whole, relations between Christians and Muslims are OK. But especially in the north, in the Mosul area, there have traditionally not been good relations between Christians and Muslims. There's a sort of fanaticism.

But in general there are no problems. Saddam has specially favored the Christians with his generous initiatives towards churches.

So even though people think he's a bad ruler in other ways, you-and many other Iraqi Christians--approve of his position on religious tolerance.


When Saddam's record on human rights is so poor, why is he tolerant of Christians?

We don't fully know why he's retained this policy of tolerance towards Christians. Perhaps because it would help him gain the support and allegiance of Christians who come originally from the north of the country, because that's the Kurdish region. There's always been conflict between the Kurdish region and the Iraqi government, even before Saddam.

Given the Kurdish situation, and because the Christians and their monasteries are found in the north, I suppose the regime wants to make sure they will be with Saddam Hussein.

If a new regime comes to Iraq, sponsored or put in place by U.S. and British forces, do you think the government will be religiously tolerant?

In the beginning, they will certainly try hard to be tolerant. But in the long run, it will depend on a democratic leadership.

If there is democracy, is it possible that conservative Muslims might vote for an almost fanatical leader?

I agree it will not be easy. The leadership in the beginning might try to be tolerant. The difficulty is connected with the ever-growing vexation and dissatisfaction of the Muslim "street" all over the world with America's unchanging policy towards Israel, for siding persistently with Israel and neglecting the just rights of the Palestinians. Any leadership in Iraq might be democratic at first, but there will be a problem unless U.S. policy begins to be more balanced towards the Palestinian cause.

So if U. S. policy towards Israel changed, it might increase religious tolerance all over the Muslim world? But don't many Muslims still consider Christians as "crusaders" no matter what?

This is a type of fanaticism you find in the Muslim world. Many Muslims don't accept [that Christians are evil]. But this Muslim fanaticism is aggravated by the Palestinian issue. If it's not fanned, the new Iraqi leadership might be able to balance the relationships of Muslims with Christians in Iraq.

How is this fanaticism expressed in anti-Christian sentiment?

Take our case in Jordan. Jordan is a benevolent dictatorship. And yet in the mosques on Friday [the Muslim holy day], the Muslim sheikh might say certain things against [Christians], though the government has a policy. There's a certain animosity against Christians. There are Muslims who are educated and enlightened who don't think badly of Christians. But there is a problem with the majority of people, who are uneducated. Such people are easily influenced by fanatical leaders.

There's a certain fundamentalism in all religions-in Christianity as well as anything else. In Islam, it's aggravated by the way the U.S. handles problems in Arab countries.

If things stay the same with Israel, what else might be done to help religious tolerance in a new Iraq?

Hope and pray for a new Iraqi leadership that's open-minded and understanding, with a modern way of thinking.

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