ISTANBUL, October 15 (Compass Direct News) – An Iraqi bishop said today that he is negotiating for the release of two Christian clergymen kidnapped in Mosul this weekend.

Syrian Catholic Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa said that he had spoken by telephone with the priests’ captors at 4 p.m. local time.

“Until now, we do not have any sign of the liberation of the two priests,” Casmoussa said. “We continue to pray and hope.”

A source close to the archbishop said that the kidnappers had demanded an enormous ransom, widely reported as $1 million. Casmoussa denied media reports today that Father Pius Affas, 68, and Father Mazen Ishoa, newly ordained and in his 30s, had been released.

Unknown men abducted the Syrian Catholic priests in Mosul’s Hay al-Thawra neighborhood on Saturday afternoon (October 13). The clergymen had gone to the area following the death of an elderly parishioner.

“We are very afraid because [the kidnappers] are criminals, and sometimes they take money and kill the priest also,” a church source said.

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 Syrian Catholic priest told Compass today 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.

“If you do not leave this church we will attack,” the letter stated, according to the clergyman. The priest said that the threat had frightened away the church’s volunteer guards.

Gentle Spirit

Fr. Affas, originally from Mosul, grew up with Archbishop Casmoussa, and the two attended seminary together.

“He is well known in Mosul, very active and the head of many young movements,” Casmoussa said.

Ordained in 1962, Fr. Affas spent 30 years as editor-in-chief of Arabic-language Christian magazine Christian Thoughts. Upon their ordination, Casmoussa said that he and Fr. Affas founded Priests of Christ the King, a community for clergymen.

“Now he’s the rector for Mosul’s Biblical Center for lay people,” Casmoussa said. “We were planning to open the center to students this coming Friday.”

Fr. Ishoa hails from the predominantly Syrian Catholic village of Qaraqosh, 20 miles southeast of Mosul. The clergyman was ordained on September 1 after graduating from St. Peter’s Seminary in Ankawa with a Bachelor in Theological Studies, Casmoussa said.

He said that the young priest has been involved in serving physically handicapped people. According to Father Bashar Warda, dean of the seminary, Fr. Ishoa is known for his gentle spirit and for his poetry.

Pope Benedict XVI yesterday launched an appeal for the release of the two priests during a Sunday blessing at the Vatican.

Ongoing violence in Mosul, the biblical city of Nineveh, has caused many from the city’s historical Christian community to flee. One Syrian Catholic priest told Compass that between 15 and 20 families leave the city each week.

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

Now heading up efforts for the two priests’ release, Casmoussa himself was kidnapped in January 2005 and released a day later. The clergyman denied reports that his church paid ransom money for his release.

Previous Violence

Another 11 priests have been kidnapped or killed in Iraq since July 2006.

Seven clergymen abducted in separate incidents in Baghdad were freed after a ransom was paid for their release.

But in Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, militants killed two priests and a Protestant church elder during the past year.

On October 13, the same day as Fr. Ishoa and Fr. Affas’ abduction, church leaders in Erbil opened a medical center to commemorate a Chaldean priest gunned down in June. Assailants in Mosul shot Ragheed Ganni and three church deacons on June 3 in front of one of the deacon’s wives.

Iraqi Christian website reported that the attackers murdered Ganni only after he refused to convert to Islam.

Armenian Christians in Baghdad have confirmed reports that two elderly Armenian brothers were brutally murdered in their Baghdad home two weeks ago. Unknown attackers used wire to strangle Ebrahim Sahak Sarkis, 70, and Owanis Sarkis, 64, in their al-Habibiya district home on September 30, according to

Armenian sources in Baghdad confirmed the October 9 report that the men’s limbs had been cut off and their bodies maimed. Motives for the attack remain unclear.

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 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.