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Kidnappers Demand Huge Ransom for Iraqi Bishop

Armed men seeking to intimidate Christian community had threatened church leader.

Kidnappers are demanding a huge ransom for a Chaldean Archbishop abducted last week in northern Iraq, sending fear through the country's Christian community, a local priest said.

Since the Friday (February 29) kidnapping in Mosul, Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho's captors have refused to decrease the amount of money they are demanding for his release, according to Father Najeeb Mikhail.

"They want money, but in addition they want to break all the Christians in Mosul," the priest said in a telephone conversation from Erbil.

Unknown armed men stopped Rahho, 65, at about 5:30 p.m. as he was leaving the Holy Spirit parish in Mosul, 225 miles north of Baghdad. The bishop had just finished leading the congregation in praying the Stations of the Cross and was returning to his home with his driver and two bodyguards.

According to Christian Iraqi website Ankawa.com, eyewitnesses said that four cars blocked Rahho's vehicle. Armed men shot and killed driver Faris Gorgis Khoder and the two guards, identified only as Ramy and Samir, before making off with Rahho.

A Christian who attended the funeral for the three men the following day in the village of Karamlis, 15 miles east of Mosul, said that the corpses had been shot in the face.

"All their faces were gone when we saw them," he said. "They were without eyes, without noses and without mouths."

Each of the three men left behind a wife and three children, Father Bashar Warda, dean of St. Peter's Seminary in Erbil, told Compass.

Mounting Threats

The Chaldean priest said that no one had been able to speak with the kidnapped archbishop since his abduction, making it difficult to know whether he remained alive.

"His health is one of the issues that concerns us because it is not good, and his medicine is not with him," Fr. Warda said. "Prayer is needed."

Fr. Mikhail said that when he saw the bishop two days before his kidnapping, the church leader had only been able to stand for 10 to 15 minutes at a time due to heart problems, for which he was taking medication. According to the priest, one of the main reasons for Rahho's bad health was the stress of constant threats from militant gangs demanding extortion money.

"One day before his kidnapping, they attacked the bishop's house in Mosul and broke many things," Fr. Mikhail said. He added that the attackers demanded a payment but the bishop refused, telling them that it was against his religion to pay money that would be used to finance violence.

A special task force has been formed in Mosul to work for the release of the archbishop, a senior police official told Agence France-Presse on condition of anonymity.

From the Vatican Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI launched an appeal for the archbishop's release. Yesterday, he again raised the issue of Rahho's kidnapping before a crowd in St. Peter's square, entreating that the "beloved archbishop, who is in precarious health, may be freed quickly."

Christians Shaken

Christians in Iraq told Compass that the entire Christian community felt targeted by the kidnapping.

A representative from a Christian aid group said that he expected an increase in the number of Christian families fleeing Mosul following the bishop's abduction.

"You might release the bishop, but you cannot recover the confidence of the people," said Father Emanuel Youkhana of Christian Aid Program Nohadra Iraq. "Within the last two or three months, the church is attacked and then the bishop is kidnapped, so how can people save their confidence?"

Fr. Mikhail agreed that Rahho's kidnapping had been about more than just money.

"There are some Muslims that want to put Christians out of Mosul," the priest said. "So through these criminals, they try to intimidate the relationship between Muslims and Christians."

The biblical city of Nineveh has traditionally been home to Iraq's indigenous Christian population. But in recent years it has gained a reputation as a hotbed for fanatic Islam.

Last June, a Chaldean priest and three deacons leaving Mosul's Holy Spirit parish were gunned down after refusing to convert to Islam. Several Mosul churches were attacked in coordinated bomb blasts last January.

An Eastern rite denomination in communion with Rome, the Chaldean church is Iraq's largest Christian community.

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