Weeping Christians bury Iraqi archbishop

14.jpgThe patriarch of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic church, Emmanuel III Delly, tearfully urged Christians on Friday not to seek revenge for the death of the archbishop of Mosul, whose body was found in a shallow grave two weeks after being kidnapped.

The 80-year-old cardinal, who broke down and wept, told throngs of mourners at the funeral of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho in the northern Iraqi Christian village of Kremlis they are obliged to follow a path of peace.

“The people of the church should be self-restrained and patient,” he said in Mar Aada church in Kremlis, about 35 kilometres (22 miles) east of the main northern city of Mosul, where Rahho’s body was found on Thursday.

Rahho, 65, was kidnapped during a shootout in which three of his companions were killed, as he returned home after mass in Mosul on February 29.

His kidnappers telephoned church authorities on Thursday to announce that the archbishop had died and that they had buried him, giving the location of the grave.

The cleric’s body was later exhumed from the site.

“He worked day and night in the church,” Cardinal Delly told the mourners on Friday, many of them spilling into the street outside the overcrowded church.

“He was brave, deeply faithful to the service of the church. He spent his life serving the church honestly and peacefully. He was one of those who died and shed their blood for sake of the duty.”

After the service, which lasted about two hours, the coffin bearing Rahho’s body was lowered into a crypt at the back of Mar Aada, where a church official said other Chaldean Catholic clerics have been laid to rest.

It has not yet been announced whether Rahho died from natural causes or was killed — there were no bullet wounds to his body. But Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and others are treating the death as murder.

The US embassy in Baghdad and the American military blamed Al-Qaeda for the archbishop’s death.

The website of Christian-sponsored Ishtar television said the kidnappers moved three times during the two weeks of captivity because the area where they were holding Rahho was raided twice.

The kidnappers had demanded that Christians contribute to the jihad, or the holy war, that a number of Arab detainees be released from custody and that they be paid three million dollars for Rahho’s release.

Rahho was the latest in a long line of Chaldean clerics to be abducted since the US-led invasion of Iraq five years ago.

Iraq’s Christians, with the Chaldeans by far the largest community, were said to number as many as 800,000 before the invasion.

Rahho’s kidnapping and death shocked the minority Christian community in Iraq, already victims of sectarian cleansing, killings and kidnappings at the hands of both Sunni and Shiite Islamists, as well as criminal gangs.

“It is now very dangerous for Christians,” said Samar Sharif, in Mosul. “The terrorists are trying to divide us, but we will not allow them. We cannot keep quiet. We must punish these people.”

Another Christian, Joseph Iskander, said the aim of the kidnapping was to “make problems between communities. It is not about money.”

Evan Mirza, 24, a resident of Baghdad, said she was too afraid to go to church and had fled from the city’s Al-Dura neighbourhood, the capital’s historical Christian quarter, under pressure from Al-Qaeda jihadists.

“The terrorists are attacking us,” she said “I’m living in Al-Qadisiyah neighbourhood. There is no church here and we can’t go to another place far from our home, for fear of being killed.”

Another Baghdad Christian, who asked not to be named, said he and his family too had been forced out of Al-Dura.

“All Christians in Baghdad and Mosul are mourning this disaster,” he said. “He was a good person, he liked to help everyone, Christians and Muslims. What did they gain from killing him? They are criminals who want to kill Muslims and Christians for the sake of money.”