Friday, February 29, 2008

Gunmen kidnap Iraqi Chaldean Catholic archbishop

MOSUL, Iraq, Feb 29 (Reuters) - Gunmen kidnapped the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul on Friday in the northern Iraqi city and killed his driver and two guards, police said.

"He was kidnapped in the al-Nour district in eastern Mosul when he left a church. Gunmen opened fire on the car, killed the other three and kidnapped the archbishop," said provincial police spokesman Brigadier-General Khaled Abdul Sattar.

An assistant to Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad and spiritual leader of Iraq's Catholics, said they had heard three people were killed and they did not know the fate of the archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho.

Chaldeans belong to a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that practises an ancient Eastern rite. Most of its members are in Iraq and Syria, and they form the biggest Christian community in Iraq.

While violence across much of Iraq has dropped in recent months, U.S. and Iraqi officials say that Mosul remains the last urban stronghold of al Qaeda, which they identify as the biggest threat to the country's security.

A number of Christian clergy have been kidnapped or killed, and churches bombed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Last June, gunmen murdered Catholic priest Ragheed Aziz Kani and three assistants in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, after stopping his car near a church in the eastern part of the ethnically and religiously mixed city.

The assailants dragged out the priest and his assistants and shot them dead in an attack that was condemned by Pope Benedict.

A former Archbishop of Mosul, Basile Georges Casmoussa, was kidnapped at gunpoint in 2005, but was released after one day of captivity and said no ransom was paid.

Marc Stenger, Bishop of Troyes in France and president of the Catholic peace group Pax Christi, said he had met Rahho with a multi-denominational delegation near Mosul this month.

"He didn't want the meeting to take place in the city but outside, because he knew it was dangerous," he told Reuters.

"He is a man who likes to make jokes and he joked about the danger, but this was really a sign of great tension."

Stenger said "prospects are not cheerful" for Iraq's Christian community.

Christians make up about 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million, mostly Muslim, population. According to a 1987 census, there were 1.4 million Christians in Iraq but the number now is thought to have fallen below 1 million.

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