BAGHDAD – Mourners carrying flowers and olive branches attended the funeral mass of one of Iraq's most senior Chaldean Catholic clerics on Friday, one day after his body was found in a northern Iraqi city where al-Qaida retains its last urban stronghold.
Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped by unknown gunmen two weeks ago, just minutes after performing mass. Three of his aides were killed during the kidnapping, the latest in a series of attacks on Iraq's small Christian community — which has often been targeted by militants.
Pope Benedict XVI, U.S. President George W. Bush and Iraq's prime minister all deplored the attack. U.S. officials in Baghdad issued a statement Friday, calling it "one more savage attempt by a barbaric enemy to sow strife and discord."
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraqi Christians have been targeted by Islamic extremists who label them "crusaders" loyal to U.S. troops.
Militants have attacked churches, priests and businesses owned by Christians, many of whom have fled the country in a trend mirrored across the Islamic world.
During the funeral in a village outside Mosul in northern Iraq, grieving Christians wept and wailed as the archbishop's coffin was carried down the streets, led by a church official carrying a wooden cross affixed with Rahho's picture.
Rahho was the most senior Catholic cleric in Iraq after Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly — who was elevated to the College of Cardinals by the pope last November.
During the funeral mass, Delly remembered the archbishop as a man dedicated to his faith.
"He was a man of honesty, loyalty and peace," he said. "He was loved by all Iraqi people regardless of their sectarian background."
Rahho, 65, was seized on Feb. 29 in Mosul, a city the U.S. military considers the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq.
It was not immediately clear if Rahho was killed or if he died of an illness while in captivity. The archbishop had recently undergone surgery to remove a blood clot from his leg, according to church officials speaking on condition of anonymity for security concerns.
A Mosul morgue official, speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason, said Rahho's body had no bullet holes. The official said police found the body in an early stage of decomposition under a thin layer of dirt just north of the city, suggesting that Rahho had been dead for a few days.
There have been no claims of responsibility for the Rahho's kidnapping or his death.
The Chaldean church is an Eastern-rite denomination aligned with the Roman Catholic Church that recognizes the authority of the pope. Chaldean Catholics make up a tiny minority of the current Iraqi population but are the largest group among the less than 1 million Christians in Iraq, according to last year's International Religious Freedom Report from the U.S. State Department.
At Friday prayers in Kufa, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, Shiite religious leaders condemned the archbishop's death and demanded swift justice.
"We condemn the criminal act conducted by the terrorist groups," Sheik Abdul Hadi al-Mohammadawi, an aide of firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said Friday during a sermon.
Meanwhile, two suicide car bombs exploded within seconds of each other at an Iraqi army checkpoint in Mosul, killing three and wounding five civilians, police said.
The U.S. military on Friday said a suicide bomber who killed two people a day earlier in Zab, a village outside Kirkuk, about 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, was a woman.
Female suicide bombers have been involved in at least 20 attacks or attempted attacks since the war began, including the grisly bombings of two pet markets in Baghdad that killed nearly 100 people last month.