BAGHDAD, March 17 (Reuters) - Iraq's Christian minority fears that religious tolerance may be an unintended casualty of any U.S.-led war to topple President Saddam Hussein.
"Who can predict what will happen if the genie gets out of the bottle?" one clergyman, Father Youssef Tuma, told Reuters.
"Prayers are all we have left. In the event of an aggression by the West, we pray the other party does not take it out on us or look at Christians of the East as the cause," he said.
Saddam might not be their hero but Iraq's 1.5 million Christians fear his fall could expose them to the fury of a new breed of Iraqi Islamists who link Christianity with the West.
They blame Sunni Wahhabis, followers of Saudi Arabia's strict version of Islam, for attacks and threats in recent months that reflect a rise in anti-Christian sentiment in a once tolerant, mainly Muslim country of 24 million.
In August, a 70-year-old Roman Catholic nun was murdered. She was found naked in her bed with one hand tied to her ankle, her mouth stuffed and her throat cut in what diplomats and church sources described as an Algerian-style Islamist killing.
Her killers were arrested and identified by nuns as Islamists living nearby. They had seized religious items from the chapel next door, such as a chalice, but no valuables.
In September, Wahhabi zealots stoned Christians coming out of church in the northern city of Mosul, wounding 15 people.
The sources said leaflets and letters had been sent to bishops and families asking them to convert to Islam, sometimes using threats and sometimes enclosing money to lure them.
In Mosul, a Wahhabi stronghold, nuns have stopped wearing habits after being harrassed or abused. Taxi drivers, they say, will not pick them up when in religious dress.
Nuns have been told to take off their crosses. Students have been insulted as infidels, the sources added.
The government, whose deputy prime minister, Tareq Aziz, is a Christian, reacted swiftly to overtly anti-Christian activity. It made arrests, ordered Muslim clerics to clamp down on such behaviour and placed security guards outside churches.
Saddam has long repressed Islamist opposition, but the government has sponsored a four-year-old campaign to encourage Iraqis to turn to religion. Under the "faith campaign", dozens of mosques and religious schools have sprouted across Iraq.
Most of the clerics are Wahhabis, a sect whose penchant for enforcing public morals, and intolerance for non-Muslims, has been seen in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban.
With a U.S.-led invasion now imminent, many Christians are voicing fears of a surge in attacks by Islamists seeking local targets for revenge against the West, perhaps inspired by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden, himself a Wahhabi.
"They regard the American war as a crusade and this is frightening. They associate us with the West," said one Roman Catholic bishop, who asked not to be named.
Western diplomats said Iraqi Christians had felt protected during 35 years of rule by the pan-Arab nationalist Baath Party, which was founded by Michel Aflaq, a Christian from Syria.
But no longer. They say Islamist groups long crushed by Saddam may re-emerge after a U.S.-British invasion that would loosen state control. Christians could become soft targets.
"There has been no persecution against Christians in Iraq until now. But there is fear among Christians now that if this secular and religiously tolerant regime goes, the fanatics and extremists will pop up," one Western envoy said.
VITRIOL FROM MOSQUES
There is nowhere better to feel the pulse of anti-Western and anti-Christian sentiment than in Baghdad mosques, where Friday sermons are breaking government-set tolerance limits.
Preachers use virulent language, urging Muslims to fight "the followers of the devil" and calling Christians infidels or Nazarenes -- words used by al-Qaeda leader bin Laden.
"Christians are scared. There is panic over anti-Christian sentiment. Saddam overcame the problem of religion. They (Baathists) are not religious fanatics," one bishop said.
Saddam, whose power-base lies in the Sunni minority, but whose soldiers are mostly Shi'ites, used Islam to rally Iraqis during the 1980-88 war with Iran and the 1991 Gulf War.
Iraqis say the hardship of two wars and tough U.N. sanctions required strong faith to survive. Iraq's isolation since the 1991 Gulf War has also played a part in the swing to religion.
So has a drive by Saudi Arabia, alarmed at the Shi'ite uprising after the Gulf War, to promote Wahhabism in Iraq, previously unreceptive to Wahhabi ideas, analysts say.
Diplomats said the Saudis were worried that Iraq might come under the sway of mainly Shi'ite Iran if its Shi'ite majority seeks more power at the expense of the long-dominant Sunnis.
"The (prospect of) regime change is terrifying each religious group in Iraq and beyond. Every sect fears the other. The common worry is that there will be anarchy which will be exploited by some groups," one Western diplomat said.
"With Iranian and Saudi money, both flanks of fundamentalist Islam can threaten the secular future of Iraq," London-based Iraqi academic Faleh Abdel-Jabar wrote in a recent article.
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