ISTANBUL, June 13 â€“ Iraqi church leaders continue to hope for the release of a priest kidnapped exactly one week ago, even as the number of threats against Christian families in the Iraqi capital tops 1,000, church sources said. Fr. Hani Abdel Ahad and four young men from his church were kidnapped on June 6 while traveling from his Divine Wisdom parish to the cityâ€™s minor seminary, both in northeastern Baghdadâ€™s Suleikh neighborhood.
â€œI canâ€™t say anything before Hani is released,â€ Fr. Warduni said today by telephone from Baghdad. Other church leaders said they believe Ahad is alive but declined to disclose what, if any, efforts were being made to secure the missing priestâ€™s release.
Fr. Ahad was transporting several personal belongings by truck with the help of young men from his church when he was stopped and kidnapped, a church source said. The four young men were released the following day.
Church sources refused to openly state whether a ransom had been paid for their release.
One church leader said that the four young men had been kept in a separate house from Fr. Ahad. Upon their release, the source said that the kidnappers â€œleft them on the street and gave them just enough money for a taxi home.â€
Fr. Bashar Warda, rector of St. Peterâ€™s Seminary in Erbil, told Compass he hoped Christians around the world would continue praying for Fr. Ahadâ€™s freedom.
â€œChristians are facing a more and more difficult time,â€ Fr. Warda commented.
The priest said that as of this morning, a church committee had documented more than 1,000 Christian families, mostly from southern Baghdad, who have been threatened by Islamic militias. He said that the families have been either directly or indirectly threatened by armed groups as part of a â€œcampaignâ€ to rid Dora and several adjacent neighborhoods of their Christian populations.
Christian families in these areas have reportedly been told to convert to Islam, pay jizya (a tax paid by non-Muslims living in Muslim countries), leave with only the clothes on their backs or marry one of their daughters to the Muslim fighters.
â€œAround 60 of these families are without a house now, and they will be sent within the week to either Kirkuk or Kurdistan,â€ Fr. Warda said.
Fr. Ahad, the seventh Chaldean priest known to have been kidnapped within the past year, was working in a northeastern, majority-Sunni neighborhood that has seen relatively little direct targeting of Christians.
The quiet and introverted cleric had arrived in Baghdad a year ago to fulfill his dual post as parish priest for the Church of Divine Wisdom and as assistant to the rector of the minor seminary, located near the church in Suleikh. Before that, he had worked for two years at a parish in Lebanon.
But despite being relatively more â€œChristian-friendlyâ€ than certain other Baghdad neighborhoods, Suleikh has seen several anti-Christian attacks. The priest who formerly held Fr. Ahadâ€™s position at the Church of Divine Wisdom said that he remembered at least two specific occasions where the minor seminary had been bombed in the past year.
He said the seminary closed approximately 10 months ago because of escalating violence.
Fr. Ahadâ€™s capture came just days after another Chaldean priest, Ragheed Ganni, was shot to death near his Holy Spirit parish in Mosul on June 3. According to Iraqi Christian website Ankawa.com, Ganni and three deacons were told to convert to Islam before being riddled with bullets as one of the deaconâ€™s wives looked on.
Afraid that the bodies were rigged with explosives, church members called both local police and the military to collect the corpses from the street. Law enforcement did not arrive, and Christians eventually collected the bodies three hours later.
Ankawa.com also reported on Monday (June 11) that unknown assailants bombed an Assyrian Church of the East church in the Nineveh plain city of Telkaif, 10 miles north of Mosul, at 11:30 a.m. The article said that two people sustained minor injuries while the blast broke the parish garden wall and shattered its windows.
City officials later claimed that the blast had not targeted the church, which is located on one of the cityâ€™s main roads, but had been an assassination attempt against a district official.
â€œSome security sources confirmed that this explosion was aimed at me personally,â€ district head Bassem Blo told Ankawa.com.
Blo said that his entourage had passed along the road only 15 minutes before the explosion.