By SAMEER N. YACOUB
BAGHDAD (AP) â€” Gunmen kidnapped a Chaldean Catholic archbishop Friday in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, police and the church said, in another attack targeting Iraq’s small Christian community.
The gunmen killed three people who were with Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho after he ended a Mass at a nearby church, said Iraqi Brig. Gen. Khalid Abdul Sattar, a spokesman for the Ninevah province police.
An aide to Iraq’s Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, leader of the church, said he did not know who was behind the kidnapping of the 65-year-old archbishop.
“We pray for his release as soon as possible,” said Archbishop Andreos Abouna. “This act of abduction against a Christian clergy member will increase our fears and worries about the situation of Christians in Iraq.”
Last year’s International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. State Department noted that Chaldean Catholics comprise a tiny minority of the Iraqi population, but are the largest group among the less than 1 million Christians in mostly Muslim Iraq.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians have been targeted by Islamic extremists who label them “crusaders” loyal to U.S. troops.
Churches, priests and business owned by Christians have been attacked by Islamic militants and many have fled the country.
Last June, Pope Benedict XVI expressed deep concern about the plight of Christians caught in the deadly sectarian crossfire in Iraq and pressed President Bush in a meeting to keep their safety in mind.
“Particularly in Iraq, Christian families and communities are feeling increasing pressure from insecurity, aggression and a sense of abandonment,” Benedict said at the time.
The Chaldean church is an Eastern-rite denomination that recognizes the authority of the pope and is aligned with Rome.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also pledged last fall to protect and support the Christian minority.
Though most of Iraq has witnessed a decrease of violence over the past six months, the U.S. military regards Mosul as the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq, and is engaged in a campaign with Iraqi forces to root out extremists from the city 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.
In an interview with AsiaNews, a Vatican-affiliated missionary news agency, in November, Rahho said the situation in Mosul was not improving and “religious persecution is more noticeable than elsewhere because the city is split along religious lines.”
“Everyone is suffering from this war irrespective of religious affiliation, but in Mosul Christians face starker choices,” he told the news agency.