Iraqi Christians mourn archbishop

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was buried Friday, two weeks after he was kidnapped in the troubled northern city of Mosul.

Hundreds gathered at the church in the village of Kramleis, just north of Mosul, to memorialize the highest-ranking Christian cleric to be targeted by armed groups since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq five years ago.

Rahho’s body was found a day earlier in Mosul, where his religious community has faced attacks from Sunni Arab extremists and criminal gangs.

Gunmen grabbed Rahho Feb. 29 outside his church after he had finished celebrating a prayer service. His driver and two guards were shot dead in the abduction.

According to police and church officials, the archbishop, who suffered from heart disease and diabetes, died because his captors failed to provide him his regular medications. Initially, Nineveh province police chief Gen. Wathiq Hamdani said he believed Rahho had been shot when kidnapped and died of his injuries.

Rahho’s death was perceived as a major blow to Christians in Mosul. The country’s Christian minority, which stood at about 800,000 before the start of the war in 2003, has been targeted repeatedly in Iraq’s recent bloodshed. Militants have viewed Christians as sympathetic to the West and easy to prey upon due to their small numbers.

At the funeral, religious leaders tried to calm the beleaguered community. “I ask the people of the church to be steadfast and patient,” Iraq’s Chaldean patriarch, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, told mourners, his voice choking. “He became a martyr because of his great faith, and his love for his service.”

Mourners threw flowers on Rahho’s simple wooden coffin and women wailed as his body passed down the central aisle of the small church in the village, where other Christian victims of Mosul’s strife have been buried.

Christians remembered Rahho, who was in his 60s, for having continued to give hope to their dwindling numbers. In June, the archbishop’s confidant, Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, was shot dead along with three deacons outside the Church of the Holy Spirit, where Rahho was kidnapped last month. On one occasion, Rahho was accosted by gunmen, but he walked on, daring them to shoot him, said Nabil Kashat, an advisor to the Chaldean Charity Assn.

Kashat had lunch with Rahho as part of a small group a week before his abduction.

“He was encouraging Christians to stay in Mosul. He was pushing for tolerance among all factions. His loss is a big loss for all the Christians and Muslims of Mosul. It is a real shock for everyone. The Christians of Mosul will not be in a good position to believe that the city is safe for them,” Kashat said.

A woman from Mosul, who identified herself as Rayat, said by phone that Rahho’s death was the last straw for her. “After our holy man was killed, I don’t want to stay in Mosul. Our good men are gone. When there are holy days, where will we go now?” she said.

Rayat, a schoolteacher, said her husband and two children now planned to move to northern Nineveh province, which is under the control of Kurdish security forces. She said she knew four Christian families who had fled Mosul in the last two months after armed groups left notes by their houses telling them to pay a religious tax or be killed.

Yonadam Kanna, a Christian in Iraq’s parliament, criticized the government for failing to protect his community. He noted there was an Iraqi army checkpoint three hundred yards from the church where Rahho was abducted.

“How is it possible that in broad daylight four cars could attack and kidnap such a high-ranking clergyman?” Kanna asked. “We blame the local authorities. They have never taken serious steps to take care of such high-ranking clergy.”

The Chaldean church’s auxiliary bishop of Baghdad echoed Kanna’s concerns about who was responsible for Rahho’s death.

“I don’t know who they are. . . . We have doubts about everyone,” said Msgr. Shlemon Warduni. “In this period . . . the church was alone.”

In other developments, a former Iraqi national team soccer player, Munthir Khalaf, was gunned down in west Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighborhood, police said.

In Kut, southeast of Baghdad, Mahdi Army militiamen clashed with police, leaving one police officer dead and 13 people injured, police said. Fighting started when police raided an illegal checkpoint set up by the Shiite Muslim militia. Earlier in the week, Mahdi Army fighters had clashed with U.S. and Iraqi security forces in Kut. The militia’s leader, cleric Muqtada Sadr, recently extended a six-month truce, but some factions have ignored his orders.

Also south of Baghdad, at least 20 rockets or mortar shells aimed at the U.S. Embassy annex in Hillah fell short and killed four civilians Friday night, police said.

Times staff writers Saif Hameed and Said Rifai contributed to this report.