MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Gunmen murdered a Catholic priest and three assistants in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, which Pope Benedict condemned as a "senseless killing".
Iraqi police said Chaldean Catholic priest Ragheed Aziz Kani and his assistants were killed near the church of Rouh al-Quds after leading Sunday prayers in eastern Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad on Sunday.
Police sources said gunmen stopped Kani's car, dragged him and his assistants out and shot them dead.
Iraqi sources say al-Qaeda-inspired militants are behind the attacks against Christians in Mosul, a religiously and ethnically mixed city of around 3 million people. It is also home to ethnic Kurds, Shi'ites and Sunni Arabs, as well as some Turkmen and Christians.
In a telegram sent on the Pope's behalf to Mosul's bishop of the Chaldean Rite Catholics on Monday, he said he was "deeply saddened".
The Pope paid tribute to the "costly sacrifice" of those killed and prayed that their deaths would "inspire in the hearts of all men and women of goodwill a renewed resolve to reject the ways of hatred and violence."
The Chaldean rite is one of the ancient rites of the Catholic Church. Its members, mostly in Iraq and Syria, are in unity with Rome.
The killings came days before U.S. President George W. Bush, under growing pressure at home over the unpopular Iraq war, meets the Pope at the Vatican this week during a trip to Europe for the Group of Eight summit in Germany.
Bertone told the Avvenire newspaper on Sunday that the Pope wanted to discuss "some problems" with Bush, including the Iraq war and "the dramatic situation of Christians in Iraq, which has been deteriorating".
Much of the violence in Iraq is sectarian between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims but Christians have also been targeted.
Human rights groups have warned that violence is driving minority Christians out of the country.
The United Nations said in a report this year that, of the 1.5 million Assyrian Christians living in Iraq before 2003, half had fled the country and many of the rest were moving to "safe areas" in the north of Iraq.
The main Chaldean college and seminary in Baghdad have been closed for months due to threats and violence.