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IRAQ-KIDNAP (SECOND UPDATE) Jan-18-2005 (690 words) With photo posted Jan. 17. xxxi

Iraqi archbishop freed unharmed less than 24 hours after kidnapping

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A Catholic archbishop was freed unharmed in Mosul, Iraq, less than 24 hours after he was kidnapped by unidentified gunmen.

Pope John Paul II thanked God for the happy ending to the ordeal, and the Vatican said no ransom was paid for the prelate's release.

Syrian-rite Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa of Mosul was released Jan. 18 and was resting safely at his residence. Church officials said it was unclear whether the abduction was directed against the Christian community or was part of the general criminality in Iraq.

Archbishop Casmoussa, 66, told Vatican Radio after his release that his captors had treated him well and freed him soon after they discovered he was a Catholic bishop.

"I'm very happy to be back in the archbishop's residence, where many friends and faithful gathered to meet me," Archbishop Casmoussa said.

"In general I can say I was not mistreated. The kidnappers were very friendly toward me. As soon as they learned that I was a bishop, their behavior changed," he said.

"This morning they came to tell me that even the pope had asked for my release, and I answered, 'Thank God.' On the basis of the conversations I had with them, I don't think they wanted to strike the church as such," he said.

Although there were reports that the kidnappers had asked for a ransom, Archbishop Casmoussa said he was freed without any payment.

The Vatican originally condemned the kidnapping as a "terrorist act," but after the archbishop's release church officials seemed more inclined to attribute it to the proliferating number of abductions for ransom in Iraq.

Archbishop Fernando Filoni, the Vatican's nuncio in Baghdad, Iraq, said it was difficult to say whether the kidnapping was part of a wave of terrorism before the Jan. 30 national elections or simply "an episode of common criminality."

Asked whether Iraq was ready for the elections, Archbishop Casmoussa said: "I don't think this is the right moment. The very first thing we need is security and reconciliation."

In a statement, the Vatican welcomed the news of Archbishop Casmoussa's release with "great satisfaction."

"The Holy Father was immediately informed, and he thanked God for the happy outcome of this episode," the statement said.

"No ransom was paid. The kidnapping prompted great surprise because the archbishop was very well-liked, both by Christians and by Muslims," it said.

Archbishop Casmoussa, who ministers to some 30,000 Syrian-rite Catholics in the Mosul Archdiocese, was seized while on a pastoral visit in Mosul on the afternoon of Jan. 17. His abductors bundled him into the back of a car and drove away, according to witnesses.

The Vatican called for his immediate release, and Iraqi church leaders quickly organized prayer vigils.

Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel-Karim Delly of Baghdad cautioned against seeing the abduction as an anti-Christian act.

"We don't know who was responsible for this kidnapping. Nor do we know who kidnapped a Chaldean-rite priest in recent days and held him 24 hours before releasing him," he told the Italian news agency ANSA.

"The real problem is that Iraq is in chaos. We need to pray -- and we also ask this of you -- so that peace may come to our suffering country," Patriarch Delly said.

Catholics in the northern Mosul region have reported increasing acts of violence and intimidation against Christians in recent months; they attribute much of the violence to Islamic extremists.

Churches have been bombed, priests and religious threatened, and thousands of Catholics have fled the country for safe haven in Syria and Jordan. The exact number of those who have left is unknown, but Syrian media say up to 70,000 Iraqi Christians now live in Syria.

Most recently, an Armenian Catholic church and the Chaldean Catholic bishop's residence were destroyed Dec. 7 in two separate bomb attacks in Mosul. No one was killed or injured in the attacks.

In October, Archbishop Casmoussa said terrorist groups that bomb Iraqi churches "hope that many, many more Christians will go."

"Their strategy is to create fear among the Christians and push them out of Iraq," he said.


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