BAGHDAD: March 13, 2008. (AFP) A Chaldean Catholic archbishop kidnapped last month in northern Iraq was found dead on Thursday, an Iraqi official said.
"Yes, we found his body," interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf told AFP.
He was reacting to a report from Rome that the body of Paulos Faraj Rahho, the archbishop of Mosul who was kidnapped on February 29, was found near the northern city.
It was unclear if he died of natural causes or was killed.
The kidnappers had telephoned to inform the Baghdad prelate that Rahho, who was in poor health, had died and that they had buried him, the Italian Roman Catholic Church`s SIR news agency reported, quoting the auxiliary archbishop of Baghdad, Shlemon Warduni.
"The kidnappers had told us already (Wednesday) that Monsignor Rahho was very ill, and yesterday afternoon they told us that he died. This morning, they telephoned us to say they had buried him," Warduni said, adding that the kidnappers indicated the location of the body.
"We still don`t know whether he died from his poor health or was killed," Warduni said. "The kidnappers only told us that he was dead."
The archbishop is the highest-ranking Christian cleric to have died while being held by kidnappers in Iraq.
Iraqi television channel Ishtar, sponsored by Christian churches, said the archbishop`s had been exhumed and transported to a morgue where the cause of death will be determined.
Rahho was kidnapped in Mosul after a shootout in which three of his companions were killed.
Pope Benedict XVI reacted with "deep sadness" to the news of Rahho`s death, a Vatican spokesman said.
"The most absurd and unjustified violence continues to afflict the Iraqi people and in particular the small Christian community whom the pope ... holds in his prayers ... in this time of deep sadness," Father Federico Lombardi said.
"This tragic event underscored once more and with more urgency the duty of all, and in particular of the international community, to bring peace to a country that has been so tormented," Lombardi said.
Iraqi forces in Mosul had fanned out to search of Rahho, who was the latest in a long line of Chaldean clerics to be abducted since the US-led invasion five years ago.
Two priests were kidnapped in the city in October, and last June a priest and three deacons were attacked in front of their church.
Iraq`s Christians, with the Chaldean sect by far the largest community, were said to number as many as 800,000 before the invasion.
Associated with the "Crusader" invaders and regarded as well-off, they are now victims of sectarian cleansing, killings and kidnappings at the hands of both Sunni and Shiite Islamists, as well as criminal gangs.
The Vatican`s ambassador to Iraq, Monsignor Francis Assisi Chullikatt, said in an interview with Ishtar TV that Rahho had led a "life of integrity, a life of testimony to the faith that he was living."
"Christians in Iraq will be called upon to follow the same example so that we can continue to live our faith and be promoters of peace and reconciliation in Iraq," he said.
In early January, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki assured Chullikatt that his government is committed to ensuring the safety of Christians, after a string of attacks on churches and a convent.
"The Iraqi government is anxious to ensure the safety of Iraqi Christians," Maliki said, adding that it is not only Christians who are being targeted but all religious groups, including Muslims