Iraq 'not ready' for elections, says freed bishop

The archbishop of the Syrian Catholic archdiocese of Mosul in Iraq was released on Tuesday having been abducted at gunpoint less than 24 hours earlier…

Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, 66, was kidnapped from in front of a church in the city and bundled into a car.
Iraqi intelligence experts said the kidnap was most likely carried out by a fringe group of Sunni extremists with Baathist connections, but the identities of the kidnappers, and their motives, remain unclear.

Following his release, Casmoussa told Vatican Radio he had been treated well during his one day in captivity.

“As soon as they found out I was a bishop, their attitude changed. I think that my abduction was a coincidence. Based on the conversations I had with the kidnappers, it didn’t appear to me that they wanted to strike at the Church,” he said.

Asked whether Iraq was ready for forthcoming elections on 30 January, he said: “I don’t think this is the right moment. The very first thing we need is security and reconciliation.”

Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel Delly of Baghdad said that although the identity of the kidnappers remained unknown, “there is confirmation that these are not deliberate attacks against Christians.” He added that the “real problem” is that Iraq is in a state of chaos.

Mosul is home to one of Iraq’s largest Christian communities, with some 35,000 Catholics in the city, divided between two Eastern-rite archdioceses: Chaldean and Syrian.

Patriarch Delly said there had been a number of kidnappings of Christians and Muslims in the Mosul area in recent weeks, but analysts are unsure as to whether the motive for the kidnapping was political, sectarian or financial in a country where kidnapping for ransom is common amid mounting sectarian violence in the run-up to Iraq’s national elections.

Although a £100,000 ransom was demanded on Monday night, the Vatican was adamant no money changed hands to ensure the archbishop’s release.

Pope John Paul was immediately informed of the release, the papal spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said.

“Thank God for the happy conclusion,” he said, adding that the abduction had come as a surprise to the Vatican, because Casmoussa was popular with both Christians and Muslims.

Mosul is split demographically into four groups; Christians, Kurds, Sunnis and Assyrians.

There is currently a battle for influence in the city, especially in light of its proximity to the Kurdish-controlled north and the Syrian border.

For the Sunnis, it is important to maintain influence over Iraq’s northernmost town, especially as Mosul was mentioned as part of a proposed Christian enclave to be set up to protect Iraq’s indigenous Christian community at the end of 2004.

There are several possible reasons why the archbishop was released so quickly.

If the kidnappers were indeed a Sunni group with Baathist connections, it is likely pressure was applied from Syria to release him, as there would be little bartering value in a Syrian Catholic.

Most of Iraq’s Christians, who make up some three percent of the 25 million population, belong to the early Assyrian and Chaldean churches; the Syrian church represents only a small number of Christians with little influence.

The Vatican has been seen favourably in the eyes of the Ba’athists due to its virulent opposition to the war and occupation, so it would not be perceived as a primary target for Sunni militants.

Pressure would also have been applied from the Syrian Church in Damascus.

Catholics attribute the increasing acts of violence and intimidation against Christians in Iraq to Islamic extremists. Churches have been bombed, priests and religious threatened. Last August, five churches in Baghdad and Mosul were bombed in coordinated attacks that killed 12 people.

Another five Baghdad churches were bombed at the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last October, while eight were killed in two church bombings in November.

Most recently, last month an Armenian Catholic church and the Chaldean Catholic bishop’s residence were destroyed in two separate bomb attacks and, fearing more attacks, Iraq’s Christian leaders cancelled midnight mass celebrations around the country.

Thousands of Catholics have fled the country for safe haven in Syria and Jordan.

The exact number of those who have left is unknown, but Syrian media say up to 70,000 Iraqi Christians now live in Syria. Around 650,000 remain.