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Kidnappers in Iraq Demand Enormous Ransom for Priest

by Peter Lamprecht

5/21/07 Iraq (Compass Direct News) – Church leaders in Iraq reported that kidnappers have demanded a huge ransom for the release of a Chaldean priest abducted in Baghdad over the weekend.

“They phoned us, they want money and we cannot say anything else,” Baghdad’s Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni told Compass regarding the abduction of Father Nawzat Hanna Saturday morning (May 19).

Hanna, 38, was abducted upon exiting the home of a sick parishioner in the city’s Baladiyat neighborhood, Asia News reported. Christian sources told Compass that the ransom demand was six digits in U.S. dollars, far more than the church could pay.

Chaldean priest Bashar Warda, dean of St. Peter’s Seminary, said Hanna is the only priest at the Chaldean Mar Pithion parish of 700 families, located in a north-eastern, predominantly Shiite district of the city.

Hanna is at least the sixth Chaldean priest to be kidnapped in Baghdad during the past year. All were eventually released, and in several cases Compass has confirmed that ransom money has been paid, but Christian sources said the abductions were about more than money.

Douglas Yusuf Al-Bazy, a Chaldean priest kidnapped and released in November 2006, told Compass last month that his kidnappers had targeted him in order to force the departure of his Baghdad parish.

Fleeing Threats

In Baghdad ’s Dora neighborhood, more than 190 Christian families in the past month have fled following threats that they must convert to Islam or leave, according to new figures from a church refugee committee.

Over the past month Islamic militias in Baghdad ’s Dora neighborhood have continued demands that local Christians convert to Islam, pay jizya (an Islamic tax levied on non-Muslims) or leave the area.

“The majority of them have been asked to leave Dora without taking any of their stuff, even their clothes,” Chaldean priest Warda told Compass from Erbil .

Warda said that, as of yesterday, a church refugee committee in Baghdad had registered 190 families that had fled Dora in the past month because they were told to convert to Islam.

The Chaldean priest, who traveled to Baghdad earlier this month, said that he believed all Dora churches had ceased to hold services since the conversion threats began in mid-April. Prior to 2003, the district had been a center of Christian activity in Baghdad .

Warda also confirmed a May 18 report on Iraqi news website Bent Al Rafidain that a group of armed Muslims had set fire to St. George Assyrian Church in Dora last Wednesday (May 16).

The Assyrian Church of the East structure had been dormant since October 2004, when it was destroyed in a wave of church bombings.

“The bishop had decided not to renovate it because he received threats,” Warda commented.

The Chaldean priest said that it was a new trend for Christians to be leaving the area specifically because of religious threats. Many believers had left the neighborhood over the past year due to its deteriorating security situation, which involved fighting between Sunni militias and U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

“But this is almost a month since the people began to move [specifically] because of the [conversion] threats,” Warda said.

Last week, Iraqi Christian website reported that Hatim Al Rizeq, a member of the Islamic State in Iraq , was coordinating harassment of Dora’s Christians from the neighborhood’s Al-Noor mosque. Members of the Sunni group have been accused of involvement in the kidnapping of U.S. journalist Jill Carroll and the death of Tom Fox, a member of a Christian Peacemaker Team that was kidnapped in November 2005.

Though unable to confirm the report, Warda said that refugees from Dora had told similar stories.

“People from Dora have told our committee that some of the negotiations about the amount to be paid [jizya] are being held in the mosque,” the Chaldean priest said.

In a rare departure from his low profile approach to the suffering of Iraq ’s Christians, Chaldean Patriarch Emmanuel III Delly descried the persecution of his flock earlier this month while celebrating mass in Erbil .

Recalling Delly’s words, Warduni told Compass, “Tell all the people to pray that peace and prosperity would return to Iraq because we are in a very bad time.”

An Eastern rite church in communion with Rome , the Chaldean church is the largest Christian community in Iraq .