Kidnapped Iraq archbishop found dead

|PIC1|The Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul kidnapped in Iraq last month has been found dead, Church officials in Rome and Baghdad said on Thursday.

According to the Vatican, Pope Benedict was "profoundly moved and saddened" by the death of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho.

"All of us had continued to pray and hope for his release, which the Pope had repeatedly urged," said Fr Federico Lombardi in a statement.

Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad was quoted as telling SIR, the news agency of the Italian Bishops Conference, "Archbishop Rahho is dead. We found his lifeless body near Mosul. The kidnappers had buried him."

Church officials said it was still not clear if the Archbishop had died as a result of ill health or if he had been killed. Local priest Fr Najeeb Mikhail told the Christian news agency Compass Direct not long after the abduction that Rahho's health had deteriorated due to stress brought on by constant threats from militant gangs demanding extortion money.

According to Warduni, the kidnappers called on Thursday morning with directions to the site where they had buried the archbishop.

"We still don't know if he died of causes linked to his precarious health or if he was killed. The kidnappers only told us that he was dead," he said.

The Chaldean Church, which practises an ancient Eastern rite, is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and recognises the authority of the Pope.

Armed attackers abducted Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho as he left the Holy Spirit Church in the eastern area of Mosul in northern Iraq on 29 February. His driver and two bodyguards were killed in the attack, which has left the tiny and dwindling Christian population fearful that they will be next.

Fr Mikhail believes the attacks are part of a concerted effort by extremist Muslims to drive Christians out of the area.

"There are some Muslims that want to put Christians out of Mosul," the priest said.

The abduction of Archbishop Rahho was the latest in a number of attacks on Christians in Iraq, following the murder of a Chaldean priest and three deacons last June, and a series of bomb blasts at Mosul churches in January.

"Through these criminals, they try to intimidate the relationship between Muslims and Christians," said Fr Mikhail.

Speaking prior to the news of Rahho's death, Fr Mikhail told Compass News that it would be difficult to rebuild confidence among Iraqi Christians following the Archbishop's kidnapping.

"Within the last two or three months, the church is attacked and then the bishop is kidnapped, so how can people save their confidence?"