By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife) — Iraqi Christians are mourning the deaths of a Catholic priest and his three assistants who were gunned down by Islamic militants over the weekend, shortly after another Christian couple working for the US embassy was reportedly killed, BosNewsLife established Tuesday, June 5.
Catholic priest Chaldean Catholic priest Ragheed Aziz Ganni, 35, and his assistants were killed Sunday, June 3, after leaving the Church of the Holy Spirit in eastern Mosul, 390 kilometers (244 miles) north of the capital Baghdad, police and church officials said.
The attackers reportedly shot Ganni 15 times before driving away in the priestâ€™s car. In a statement, Pope Benedict XVI said he was saddened by the slaying of the priest and the cleric's aides, which he described as a "senseless killing".
The "Holy Father was deeply saddened to learn of the senseless killing of Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni and three assistants," according to a condolence telegram sent in the pontiff's name by his secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. Pope Benedict XVI was expected to discuss the Iraq war and the plight of Christians in Iraq when he meets with US President George W. Bush on Saturday, June 9, at the Vatican.
Ganniâ€™s death was the first known killing of a Chaldean clergyman in Iraq since the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein began in 2003, Christian observers said. Despite the tensions, at least hundreds of Christians attended the funerals of the priest and his aids on Monday, June 4, in northern Iraq, photos showed.
"They were young men alive with faith, risking their lives for their belief in Christ", fellow believers reportedly said. The killings came shortly after another Christian, Assyrian, couple working for the US Embassy in Baghdad was apparently killed May 28 by an al Qaeda-led group.
In a statement, the self-styled Islamic State in Iraq said it had killed the Iraqi husband and his wife, BosNewsLife monitored Tuesday, June 5.
"God's ruling has been implemented against two of the most prominent agents and spies of the worshippers of the cross … a man and woman who occupy an important position at the U.S. embassy," said the statement published by Reuters news agency.
"The swords of the security personnel of the Islamic State in Iraq … are with God's grace slitting the throats of crusaders and their aides and lackeys," it added.
The US State Department so far only confirmed that the two local Baghdad embassy employees were missing apparently because of a kidnapping. However the well-informed Assyrian International News Agency (IANA) quoted other US officials speaking on condition of anonymity as confirming the killing of the woman.
They said the couple's car was stopped and that the husband was abducted while the terrorists screamed "you filthy Christian traitor," AINA reported. When the wife, who was only identified as Amal attempted to deliver a ransom to the kidnappers "she was killed," AINA said.
Human rights groups and church leaders have warned that the violence is driving Iraq's minority Christians out of the country.
The United Nations said in a report this year that, of the 1.5 million predominantly Assyrian Christians living in Iraq before 2003, at least half had fled the country. Other church estimates say the figure could be even worse with hundreds of thousands of Christians internally displaced.
Assyrians, who are also frequently referred to as ChaldoAssyrians due to solidarity between the Assyrian and Chaldean churches, belong to the oldest continually existing church.
The Assyrian Church's members are the only people group left on earth who speak Aramaic, the language of Christ. (With reporting from Iraq).
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