BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Tuesday that securing the release of a Chaldean Catholic archbishop, kidnapped four days ago in a dangerous northern city, was a top priority.
Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul in northern Nineveh province, was abducted on Friday after he left a church where he had been leading prayers. Gunmen attacked his car, killing his driver and two guards.
“The prime minister has issued an order to the interior minister and all security officials of Nineveh province to follow the case and work very hard to release (Rahho) as soon as possible,” Maliki’s office said in a statement.
On Saturday, the U.N. envoy to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, called on the Shi’ite Islamist-dominated government to “redouble its efforts” to protect religious minorities in Iraq.
Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, the Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad and spiritual leader of Iraq’s Roman Catholics, has also in the past criticized the country’s Shi’ite leaders for staying silent while Christians were persecuted.
Maliki’s office said the Iraqi prime minister had written to Delly expressing “deep sadness and grief” over the abduction and saying he was carefully monitoring the situation.
“The Christian sect in Iraq is one of the basic components of Iraqi society and can never be parted from its people and civilization,” Maliki said in the statement. “Any assault on its sons represents an assault on all Iraqis.”
Chaldeans belong to a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that practices an ancient Eastern rite and form the biggest Christian community in Iraq.
Christians make up about 3 percent of Iraq’s 27 million, mostly Muslim, population and have come under attack on a number of occasions since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Police have given no details of who is thought to be behind the abduction in Mosul, which U.S. commanders say is al Qaeda’s last urban stronghold in Iraq and the centre of its activities.
In January, Maliki promised a “decisive push” against the militants in the ethnically and religiously mixed city, 240 miles north of Baghdad.
However, the U.S. military says it will take some time before al Qaeda fighters are driven out.