Captive Priests Found Courage in Pope’s Appeal

MOSUL, Iraq, OCT. 23, 2007 ( One of the Syrian-Catholic priests kidnapped in Iraq for a week said Benedict XVI’s public plea for their release gave them courage in the midst of their situation.

Father Mazen Ishoa, 35, and Father Pius Afas, 60, were kidnapped Oct. 13 on their way to celebrate a funeral Mass. The next day, during his Angelus address at the Vatican, the Pope appealed for their release. One week later, the Holy See welcomed the news that the priests had been set free.

“The Pope’s plea gave us a lot of courage: The exhortation for our captors to release us was definitely a great, great help,” said Father Afas on Vatican Radio on Monday. “We have not suffered torture. […] We have lived difficult moments, though I never lost trust, hope, nor a spirit of prayer.”

The priest expressed his joy and gratitude for the “great solidarity” that the two received from all parts of the world, for the many prayers, and for the Pope’s appeal.

Father Afas said that he and Father Ishoa were set free Sunday morning, and immediately took a taxi and headed for their church. That afternoon, they concelebrated Mass. “There were a lot of people there to show their gratitude to God. It was truly very, very exciting,” he said.

Staying home

Despite his experience, Father Afas encouraged Christians to stay in Mosul.

“We are very worried that this will undermine the friendship with our Muslim brothers, with whom we have coexisted for centuries,” he said. “And this is what we told our kidnappers: We don’t want to ruin this friendship, lose this Islamic-Christian fraternity. We will stay, therefore, in Iraq; and we are not ready to give in, because we — Christians and Muslims together — are here for peace among Iraqis.”

Syrian-Catholic Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul said: “We are very worried about the future. We represent a minority in Iraq and many Iraqi Christians are being pressured to leave their houses in Baghdad or Mosul. There are many families that are leaving these places. Sometimes they receive threats that they must leave their homes, but other times, they are exhorted to convert to Islam in exchange for liberty, and if not, then to leave.

“Normally, our relationship with the Muslim population has been very good; we have coexisted in a spirit of friendship and collaboration. But now, with the fundamentalist current that combats the presence of the American troops, the situation has become extremely dangerous for us.”