IRAQ: RANSOM DEADLINE LOOMS FOR KIDNAPPED PRIESTS

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ISTANBUL, October 19 (Compass Direct News) – Kidnappers have given Iraqi church leaders only 24 more hours to raise ransom money for the release of two priests, a church leader said today.

Syrian Catholic Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa said that an independent source had confirmed the two priests, kidnapped last week, were alive.

“Someone phoned somewhere and he affirmed to us that they are alive,” said the Mosul archbishop, unable to go into further detail for security reasons. Casmoussa said he had not spoken to the priests directly.

Father Pius Affas, 68, and Father Mazen Ishoa, in his 30s, were abducted by unknown assailants on October 13 in Mosul. The Syrian Catholic priests had traveled to the city’s Hay al-Thawra neighborhood following the death of an elderly parishioner.

A source close to the archbishop said the kidnappers had demanded a $1 million ransom.

“They gave us a 72-hour period to prepare the sum,” Casmoussa said today from Qaraqosh, a predominantly Syrian Catholic village 20 miles southeast of Mosul. “That period ends tomorrow.”

The archbishop reiterated that the deadline did not mean the priests would be killed if the ransom were not immediately delivered.

According to one Mosul priest, church leaders remain uncertain whether Fr. Affas and Fr. Ishoa are still alive.

“We want to first hear their voices and speak to them before paying money,” the priest said. “Several times [kidnappers] have taken money and then killed the kidnapped [people].”

The clergyman said that Fr. Affas and Fr. Ishoa’s captors had demanded church officials pay the huge sum before releasing the two priests.

One year ago, the decapitated body of Syrian Orthodox priest Boulos Iskander was found in a northern suburb of Mosul after his family had paid a $40,000 ransom for his release.

A Mosul priest told Compass this week that Fr. Affas’ Mosul parish had received written threats from Muslim extremists prior to the kidnapping.

An Islamist group called Jihad and Tawhid had left threat letters at Fr. Affas’ St. Thomas church about two months ago, warning the congregation to leave.

Christians Targeted

“I think they just want to kill them because the church can’t pay that kind of money,” said one Iraqi journalist monitoring the plight of Christians in his country. “If they wanted money, they would bring the price down to $100,000 or $200,000.”

Ordained in 1962, Fr. Affas spent 30 years as editor-in-chief of Arabic-language Christian magazine Christian Thoughts. A native of Mosul, the elderly priest now heads up Mosul’s Biblical Center for lay people.

Fr. Ishoa had been ordained only 43 days when he was kidnapped last week. The Qaraqosh native graduated from St. Peter’s Seminary in Ankawa this past summer with a degree in Theological Studies.

He was known for his gentle spirit and poetry, according to the seminary’s dean.

Amid violence that has affected all of Iraq’s people groups, Christians and other religious minorities have been specifically targeted.

“This is not just a problem of two priests, it’s a problem for all the Christians [in Iraq]” Father Nageeb Mikhail said in a telephone interview from Mosul. “So ask Christians to pray for all the Iraqi Christians and also the minorities like Yezidis and others.”

Fr. Mikhail, a Dominican and a member of Nineveh’s council of bishops, said that at least 60 percent of Mosul’s Christians had left the city.

“They are afraid, and we are unable to celebrate mass in many of the churches,” the priest said.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has estimated that at least 2 million Iraqis have fled the country since 2003 and another 2 million are internally displaced.

Christians made up 3 percent of Iraq’s population before the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003, but hundreds of thousands are estimated to have since fled their homes amid the anarchic violence throughout much of the country.

Syrian Catholics belong to an eastern rite church in communion with Rome.