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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 January, 2005, 01:55 GMT
Archbishop abducted in Iraq
Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa
The archbishop has led Iraq's Syrian Catholics for six years.
A Roman Catholic archbishop in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul has been kidnapped by insurgents.

Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, 66, was abducted from outside his church in the city.

The Vatican said in a statement that it deplored "in the firmest way such a terrorist act", and asked that the archbishop be freed immediately.

The kidnapping came as more than 20 people died in rebel attacks around the country, ahead of the 30 January poll.

The most deadly strikes - claiming a total of at least 16 lives - occurred in the northern cities of Baiji and Baquba.
SYRIAN CATHOLIC CHURCH
File photograph of a Catholic church in Mosul
Observes the Liturgy of St James, performed in Syriac, though certain readings are in Arabic
Practised mostly in Iraq and Lebanon
In communion with Roman Catholic church since the 17th century

Archbishop Casmoussa - who was appointed leader of Mosul's Syrian Catholic community six years ago - was seized by gunmen at about 1700 local time (1400 GMT) as he was about to enter his car, a local priest told the AFP news agency.

The kidnappers forced him into the trunk of their vehicle before speeding away, he said.

There have been a number of recent attacks on Iraq's Christian minority.

Two churches were bombed in Mosul in December.

Hotbed

Christians make up some 3% of Iraq's population of about 25 million.

The Syrian Catholic church belongs to the Eastern rite of Catholicism.

It is one of a number of semi-autonomous Catholic churches in the Middle East, which pledge allegiance to the Pope in Rome but enjoy a degree of independence in their religious rites.

The abduction comes despite reinforced security in Mosul, where US and Iraqi forces have been trying to tackle rebels who have vowed to disrupt the election.

Mosul is a hotbed of insurgent activity where numerous people accused of collaborating with the Americans have been abducted and killed, says the BBC's Jim Muir in Baghdad.

Although there have been a number of attacks on Christian targets, Iraqi security forces have been the focus attacks by mainly Sunni Muslim insurgents trying to derail the election.

Boycott

Monday's attack in Baquba was claimed by followers of rebel leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Bomb debris outside police station in Baiji, Iraq
The abduction came on a day of violence across Iraq
Also on Monday, gunmen attacked police stations in Sharqat, north of Baghdad, and Dour, a Sunni village near Tikrit.

In a separate incident, two US marines died when a suicide bomber attacked an American military convoy in Ramadi, west of Baghdad.

And the Iraqi interim government also said its soldiers had killed 35 suspected insurgents in clashes near Falluja over the past two days.

Several major Sunni parties are boycotting the election, after their calls for a delay - on the grounds of security - went unheeded.

Iraqi security forces will provide the bulk of the protection for the polls, although US troops levels will be at their highest-ever level during the elections - at about 150,000.


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
How the Vatican has responded to the kidnapping




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