Death Comes for an Iraqi Archbishop

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Rev. Amer Youkhanna / AP

Chaldean Catholic archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho

Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly worried out loud about the fate of Christian minorities in the Islamic world. He's complained that churches can't be built in many Muslim countries. He warned of a mass exodus of his ancient Catholic flock from places like Beirut and Bethlehem. Now, the Pope has a martyred Iraqi bishop to lament.

Chaldean Catholic Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped on Feb. 29. On Thursday, his body was recovered. Almost immediately, the Pontiff released a blunt statement, declaring: "the most resolute condemnation of an act of inhuman violence that offends the dignity of the human being."

Several Catholic priests and seminarians have been killed in previous attacks and kidnappings over the past three years in Iraq, but Rahho is the first bishop to perish after being caught up in that country's cycle of violence. The body of the bearded 65-year-old, who was known to be in poor health, was found after his abductors called Rahho's church to say that he'd died and been buried. His corpse was found in a shallow grave just outside Mosul. The cause of death was not immediately clear.

Still, there is little doubt about the religious motivation of last month's brazen abduction, in which Rahho's driver and two bodyguards were slain. Even if criminal elements were involved in the kidnapping — and ransoms were reportedly sought — the victim was clearly targeted for his prominent role in the Church.

Mosul is the capital of Ninevah Province and home to most of Iraq's Assyrian Christian community, which swears allegiance to the Pope in Rome. Iraqi Christians have faced difficult circumstances since the U.S. invasion in 2003. Viewed by jihadist insurgents as natural allies of the American "crusaders," Christians were subjected to threats and a wave of church bombings early in the war. They faced similar violence from Shi'ite militias enforcing a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Some liquor stores — which are mostly Christian-owned since Islam forbids drinking alcohol — were bombed; many others closed or went underground.

The strain on Iraq's Christians was evident last Christmas at the Assyrian Catholic Church in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad. The previous year, Christmas 2006, Baghdad was wracked by violence and mass was poorly attended. Security improved dramatically at the end of last year, and Christmas drew a crowd that overflowed the pews and left worshippers standing in the back of the church.

But it is still a community under siege. Leila Najib, who attended mass with her husband and children, said that many of her fellow worshippers had recently moved to Karrada from other parts of Baghdad. Karrada is one of the last neighborhoods in Baghdad with a significant Christian population. Christians in Baghdad neighborhoods like Dora have fled to Karrada, and may never return to their former homes.

Even amid the relative peace brought by the U.S. military surge, Iraq's Christians still do not feel they can turn to the government for protection, or to safeguard their way of life. They fear that the Shi'ite-dominated government will only strengthen the hand of conservative Muslim groups hostile to Christians. "Security is a little better — not great," said Najib.

Catholic leaders in Rome and Iraq have decried what they see as a systematic attempt by radical Islamic groups to drive out Christians from Iraq, where their ancestry can be traced to the very origins of the faith. "The persecution of Christians in Iraq has been intensifying for the past two years," said Roberto Fontolan, the Rome-based editor of Oasis, a Catholic publication focused on the plight of Christians in Muslim-majority countries. "After all the alarms and condemnations, we have yet another tragic turn." Oasis reported recently that as many as 350,000 of the 800,000 Christians in Iraq before the war have since fled the country. In Baghdad, Najib, like many of her fellow worshippers, said that even improved security would not tempt the many Christians who have fled the countryto come home. Several Christians at mass that day said they were planning their own departures from Iraq. "Nobody," Najib said, "will come back."

Relations with Muslims have become a central theme under Benedict's papacy. His provocative 2006 speech in Germany about faith and reason sparked widespread protest in the Muslim world. Still, clumsy as it may have been, the attempt by the theologically-driven Pope to sharpen the debate about religious roots of violence seems to be bearing some fruit. A back-and-forth between prominent Muslim and Christian clerics has begun, including a letter last year from 138 prominent Islamic scholars offering to step up dialogue. Last month, Vatican officials announced that they would host the first in a series of high-level meetings with Muslims next November, where the Pope will appear.

Under John Paul II, the Vatican had been somewhat more careful in its approach to the Muslim world, often accepting limited worshipping rights in exchange for security assurances. Benedict instead has pushed repeatedly for "reciprocity," that is to demand that the same religious freedoms that Muslims enjoy in the West be granted for Christians in Muslim dominated countries.

But Fontolan said, despite the signs of progress among the theologians, there is little concrete evidence "on the ground" of progress from the ruling authorities. "On religious liberty, I don't see any steps forward," he said. "We try and retry." As extremists have gained prominence and power in the Muslim world since Sept. 11 and the onset of the Iraq war, pressure has increased on those forces hoping to guarantee basic rights and security of minority faiths. Catholic Church officials had long looked to Lebanon as a potential model for religious diversity in the Arab world. But, says Fontolan, "I don't see much hope there now either." Lebanon has recently been wracked by sectarian conflict among its Christian, Druze and Sunni and Shi'a Muslim citizens.

The Pope no doubt will mourn his martyred bishop at Sunday's Angelus prayer in St. Peter's Square. And next month, there is another appointment on his schedule where he may very well worry out loud about Christians in the Middle East: his visit to the White House and President George Bush, the man who brought about the Iraq war. With reporting by Charles Crain/Baghdad