MOSUL, Iraq A Chaldean Catholic archbishop who was kidnapped in Iraq last month was found dead on Thursday, his body half-buried in an empty lot in the northern city of Mosul, police said.
Paulos Faraj Rahho, the archbishop of Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, was abducted on February 29 after gunmen attacked his car and killed his driver and two guards.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki blamed Rahho's death on al Qaeda and said his Shi'ite Islamist-led government was committed to protecting Christians, who make up about 3 percent of the population in mostly Muslim Iraq.
"The perpetrators of this horrible crime will not run from the hand of justice," Maliki said.
Pope Benedict, who had made several appeals for the archbishop's freedom, called Rahho's death "an act of inhuman violence that offends the dignity of the human being" in a letter to Iraqi church leaders.
Chaldeans belong to a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that practices an ancient Eastern rite and form the biggest Christian community in Iraq.
"I deplore the despicable act of violence committed against the Archbishop of Mosul," U.S. President George W. Bush said in a statement. "We will continue to work with the Iraqi government to protect and support civilians, irrespective of religious affiliation."
CAUSE OF DEATH UNCLEAR
Police said it was not clear whether Rahho, 65, had been killed or died of other causes. He appeared to have been dead a week and had no bullet wounds, police at the morgue in Mosul said. He was dressed in black trousers and a blue shirt.
Mosul police Brigadier-General Khalid Abdul Sattar said the body showed signs of decomposition.
Another police officer, who asked not to be identified, said residents saw Rahho's half-buried body in an empty lot in eastern Mosul's al-Entisa district, a neighbourhood notorious for al Qaeda-linked insurgents.
The residents thought they recognized Rahho's body from his beard and contacted police.
The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said "killed" in its headline about the death and the Vatican ambassador to Iraq, Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, told the paper that Rahho was most likely injured when he was kidnapped.
A number of Christian clergy have been kidnapped and killed and churches bombed in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. A former archbishop of Mosul, Basile Georges Casmoussa, was kidnapped in 2005 but later released after a day in captivity.
The Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Emmanuel III Delly, who was made a cardinal by Pope Benedict last November in a sign of solidarity with Iraq's Christians, was too upset to talk when called for reaction. "Yes, he died," was all he could say.
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said in a statement that "the most absurd and unjustified violence continues to strike the Iraqi people and particularly the small Christian community".
(Reporting by Philip Pullella, Phil Steward and Silvia Aloisi in Rome and Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Ross Colvin; Editing by Dominic Evans)