By John Phillips – Pope Benedict XVI, during his upcoming visit to Washington, plans to seek President Bush’s help in stopping the flight of Christians from Iraq, Vatican sources said yesterday. The German-born pontiff will cite the kidnapping of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho in northern Iraq nearly two weeks ago to illustrate his concern.
Christians numbered nearly 1 million before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. By some estimates, up to half have fled their homes to other countries or elsewhere in Iraq.
“We are still in trepidation for the fate of His Excellency Monsignor Rahho, and of so many Iraqis who continue to undergo blind and absurd violence, certainly contrary to the will of God,” Benedict said during his weekly Angelus address Sunday in St. Peter’s Square.
The ailing Chaldean prelate was abducted by gunmen Feb. 29as he left the Holy Spirit Church in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul after celebrating a Way of the Cross service for Lent.
The kidnappers killed the cleric’s driver and two bodyguards during the attack. They have demanded a ransom of up to $3 million for his release, church sources said.
Whatever the outcome, the situation has strengthened Benedict’s conviction of the need to discuss the exodus of Christians from the Middle East.
The Chaldeans are an Eastern rite church that is aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and recognizes the authority of the pope.
“The pope is known to be worried by the decline in the number of Christians in the region,” said Gerard O’Connell, a correspondent for the British Catholic newspaper, the Tablet, who has covered the Vatican for three decades.
“The case of the archbishop is sure to make Benedict more determined than ever to sensitize the White House and U.S. officials to the exodus,” he added.
Another Iraqi prelate, Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, said the kidnappers, thought to be Wahhabites, had set “difficult conditions” for the release of his colleague and continue to refuse mediators direct contact with the hostage.
The Wahhabi sect of Islam, the official religion of Saudi Arabia, is a theological foundation of al Qaeda’s terrorist ideology.
Archbishop Sako appealed to the West and bishops worldwide “not to remain indifferent to their Christian brothers” in Iraq.
The papal nuncio in Iraq, Archbishop Francis Chullikat, said the abducted prelate “certainly cannot stand the kidnapping for long.”
Archbishop Rahho “is sick; last year, he underwent delicate surgery and he needs medical attention,” the nuncio told the semiofficial newspaper L’Osservatore Romano. “We are worried that he may have been wounded during the bloody abduction.”
Among those who have appealed for his release is the Council of Imams in Mosul and a prominent Shi’ite Muslim leader.
Those involved in negotiations for his freedom include Archbishop Baile Casmoussa of Mosul, who himself was kidnapped in 2004 and released after payment of a ransom, L’Osservatore Romano said.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iraqi Christians have been targeted by Islamic extremists who label them as subservient to American troops.
Churches, priests and businesses owned by Christians have been attacked by militants, and hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered security officials Tuesday to work toward the release of the archbishop. Mr. al-Maliki, who last fall promised to protect the Christian minority, has urged Iraq’s interior minister and security officials in the Nineveh province to work for the archbishop’s release.