Paulos Faraj Rahho, the archbishop of the northern city of Mosul, was kidnapped last week by gunmen who already killed his two body guards and a driver in eastern Mosul, some 390 kilometers (242 miles) from Baghdad. "He could easily be killed, and that would be really unfortunate," said Major-General Mark Hertling, commander of American forces in northern Iraq in published comments.
The kidnappers have reportedly made demands that include a ransom of up to $2.5 million and Christian support for an ongoing violent insurgency in the country. Other church sources spoke of a ransom of roughly $1.8 million.
"It could either be a criminal act for money or a terrorist act to raise money because they're running low on funds" Hertling was quoted as saying by Reuters news agency. "I think it's an act that is sectarian in nature by an organization that's trying to raise money."
Bishop Andreas Abouna of Baghdad said in a statement that Church leaders were outraged by the kidnappers’ demands. “The people who are dealing with the kidnappers have told them it is impossible to afford the ransom." He added that mediators were not allowed to hear the voice of the archbishop in phone conversations.
In Rome Muslims joined church leaders in condemning the kidnapping, following a two-day meeting at the Vatican of nearly 140 Muslim scholars and representatives of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. In remarks aired by Vatican Radio, one of the Muslim delegates, Dr. Aref Ali Nayed, condemned Islamic militants for their apparent involvement in the abduction, and added he was praying for his release.
"We want to remind our fellow Muslims that it is again the prophet's teaching to even touch religious figures and monks and priests. Because this people don't only represent themselves as human beings who are dignified and worthy of the highest respect and sanctity, but they also represent millions and sometimes billions of other human beings," he said.
Major-General Hertling said it was not clear who was behind the kidnapping, but he did not rule out 'al Qaeda in Iraq', which has regrouped in Mosul and other areas of Nineveh province after being pushed out of Baghdad and western Anbar province. Iraqi special forces and US troops are now hunting for the archbishop, said Hertling, speaking on the sidelines of a conference in the Iraqi city of Tikrit.
Militants also made clear they were still a force to be reckoned with in the Iraqi capital Thursday, March 6, as two bombs rocked Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. The devastating attacks occurred despite an overall drop in violence since the US military sent 30,000 extra troops to Iraq last year.
The US military said Thursday, March 6, some 2,000 American soldiers are being withdrawn from Iraq and will not be being replaced, the Voice of America (VOA) network reported. The soldiers were part of the extra troops sent to Iraq last year to help stop the sectarian violence that had the country on the verge of civil war.
American officials also said coalition forces killed four terrorists and detained 26 others in raids targeting al-Qaida fighters in central and northern Iraq. Among those detained were also four suspects linked to a criminal militia that was apparently not honoring a ceasefire pledge by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Last month, al-Sadr extended for another six-months a cease-fire between his Mahdi army militia and US and Iraqi forces, according to American officials. However Thursday's violence an the kidnapping of the archbishop underscored concerns among especially Iraq's minority Christians, who comprise at least three percent of Iraq's 27 million population.
Thousands have fled the country since the US-led invasion began nearly five years ago. (BosNewsLife's Anti-Terror Task Force: 'Covering the Threats of Our Time').