Kidnapped Iraqi bishop freed

Reuters

Tue Jan 18, 2005 04:07 PM GMT

By Philip Pullella

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Iraqi Catholic archbishop of Mosul who was kidnapped at gunpoint on Monday has been freed and says no ransom has been paid.

Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, 66, said on Tuesday he hoped his ordeal would not be seen as an attack on the Church in the predominantly Muslim nation.

The Vatican, which had condemned the abduction as an "act of terrorism", welcomed his release and said Pope John Paul "thanked God for the happy ending".

Casmoussa told Vatican Radio he had been treated well during his one day in captivity.

"As soon as they found out I was a bishop, their attitude changed ... I think that my abduction was a coincidence. In recent times, there have been numerous kidnappings around here," Casmoussa said.

"Based on the conversations I had with them (the kidnappers), it didn't appear to me that they wanted to strike at the Church as such."

Misna, a Rome-based Catholic missionary news agency with extensive contacts in the developing world, earlier reported the kidnappers had demanded a ransom of $200,000 (106,800 pounds).

The Vatican, which on Monday night demanded the immediate release of the archbishop, confirmed no ransom had been paid.

Casmoussa was kidnapped by gunmen in two cars in the northern al-Majmoua al-Thaqafiya district of Iraq's third largest city on Tuesday afternoon while he was on his way to visit some families in his congregation.

Navarro-Valls, the Vatican spokesman, said the kidnapping had "prompted great surprise" because Casmoussa was "very much loved" by both the Christian and Muslim community.

Casmoussa was believed to have been the highest ranking Catholic prelate to be abducted in Iraq, where the local church has been the target of a bombing campaign aimed at intimidating the tiny Christian minority.

ANCIENT CHURCHES

Most of Iraq's Christians, who make up some 3 percent of the 25 million population, belong to the early Assyrian and Chaldean Catholic churches. The Vatican strongly opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

While Christians had little political power under Saddam Hussein, they were free to worship and did not feel threatened by sectarian violence.

But Iraq's 650,000 or so Christians have been trickling out of their ancient homeland since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 as insurgents step up attacks against both Muslim and Christian holy places in an apparent bid to inflame sectarian tension.

On August 1 five churches in Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul were bombed in coordinated attacks that killed 12 people. Five Baghdad churches were bombed on the October 16 start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Eight were killed in two church bombings on November 8.

Midnight Mass was cancelled last Christmas, as several cities were under curfew and Iraq's Christian religious leaders feared renewed attacks.

Last month the Vatican's foreign minister warned that anti-Christian feeling was spreading in Iraq and other Muslim countries because of the war on terrorism.

Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, the Vatican's second-ranking diplomat, said anti-Christian feeling existed where political strategies of Western countries were believed to be driven by Christianity.