World News

Gunmen kidnap Iraqi Chaldean Catholic archbishop

MOSUL, Iraq (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.

In Rome, Pope Benedict deplored the kidnapping of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho as a “despicable” crime and urged the gunmen to free the prelate.

Provincial police spokesman Brigadier-General Khaled Abdul Sattar said Rahho 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,” he said.

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

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

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

The Vatican issued a statement in Rome saying the pope was saddened by “this new despicable act” which it called a premeditated criminal act.

Related Coverage

“The Holy Father asks the universal Church to join in his fervent prayer so that reason and humanity prevails in the kidnappers and Monsignor Rahho is returned to his flock soon,” the statement said.

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 killed Catholic priest Ragheed Aziz Kani and three assistants in Mosul, 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.

Writing by Michael Holden, editing by Sami Aboudi