NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Paulos Faraj Rahho, a Chaldean Catholic archbishop in Iraq, was kidnapped Feb. 28 by armed gunmen in the northern city of Mosul. His driver and two body guards were shot and killed during the attack, which occurred as Rahho was leaving church after celebrating a “Way of the Cross” mass.
Church officials are especially concerned because Rahho, 65, has health problems, Rabban al-Qas, the bishop of Irbil and Amadiyah, told the Associated Press.
A telephone call has been received from the kidnappers, and negotiations for his release are underway, according to MISNA, a Catholic news agency based in Rome.
Paul al-Rayan, the bishop of Duhuk and al-Imadiya, praised Rahho as a “symbol for religious and social tolerance” and described his church in Mosul as a place “open for both Muslims and Christians,” according to the Aswat al-Iraq (Voices of Iraq) news service. Shi’ite Muslim cleric Qassem al-Taie condemned the abduction and appealed to the government to “tackle this issue and to speed up efforts to secure [Rahho’s] release.”
The kidnapping may be the most recent manifestation of Islamic extremist violence against Iraq’s dwindling Christian community, according to the human rights group Christian Solidarity International (www.csi-int.org). Six people were wounded in January when nine houses of worship were bombed in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk. A priest and two deacons were killed in June 2007 outside the same church Rahho was leaving, and a Syrian Orthodox priest was murdered in Iraq in November 2006.
Although Sunni Muslim extremists are suspected, it is not yet known who was behind the kidnapping, a Chaldean Catholic spokesman told the Associated Press. The U.S. military regards Mosul, located 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, as the last urban stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“This abduction is one in the series of kidnappings carried out by terrorist groups against the Christians,” al-Qas told AP.
Although the Iraqi constitution guarantees religious freedom and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pledged last fall to protect Christians, Islamist attacks have continued and Christians have fled the country in large numbers. Although Iraq’s 550,000 Chaldean Catholics comprise the largest portion of the country’s ancient Christian community, an estimated 60,000 Christians have fled the country since the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003.
“As Christian Syrians here in this country, we have been tortured, killed, dismissed from our land,” Romeo Hakari, head of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party, a Christian political party, told the Voice of America news service.
The Chaldean church is an autonomous Eastern-rite group that is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and recognizes the authority of the pope. The Chaldean Christian community has lived in the region since the second century A.D. It worships in Syriac, a language related to the Aramaic tongue spoken by Jesus.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Mark Kelly.