Iraqi Priest, 3 Christians Gunned Down after Church Service

An unidentified gunman killed a priest and three of his assistants shortly after they conducted Sunday service in a city in northern Iraq.

Chaldaean Catholic priest Fr. Ragheed Ganni, 31, and his three assistants were killed outside of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mosul by four armed men, according to the Catholic news agency AsiaNews.

"They finished mass at 7:30 p.m. [local time] tonight, and the four of them got into the priest's car to drive away. After they had gone about 100 meters (109 yards) a car cut them off. Four armed men got out and shot them dead," Brigadier General Mohammed al-Wagaa, police chief in Mosul, told Agence France-Presse.

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The bodies were still lying in the street hours later because people were scared to retrieve their bodies, according to AsiaNews.

It is said Ragheed was the target of several previous attacks. Moreover, the Church of the Holy Spirit had also been attacked and bombed several times over the past few years.

In a telegram sent on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI to Mosul's bishop of the Chaldean Rite Catholics on Monday, the pontiff condemned the murders as a "senseless killing" and hoped their deaths would "inspire in the hearts of all men and women of goodwill a renewed resolve to reject the ways of hatred and violence," according to Reuters.

Iraqi sources say Al-Qaeda-inspired Muslim extremists are thought to be behind Sunday's murders and other attacks against Christians in Mosul, Reuters reported.

Recently, Patriarch Mar Dinka IV of the Assyrian Church of the East and the Chaldaean Catholic Patriarch Emmanuel Delly of Babylon issued a joint statement blaming the "Islamic State of Iraq," an alliance of Islamist insurgent groups supportive of Al-Qaeda, for the violence against the Christian community.

"Christians in a number of Iraq regions, especially those under the control of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, have faced blackmail, kidnapping and displacement," read the May 10 statement, according to AFP.

Iraqi Christians now face the real possibility of extinction in Iraq as they struggle to persevere under the country's constant conflict and now direct attacks targeting believers. Assyrian Christians often point out and lament they are the indigenous people of Iraq, tracing their roots back to Babylonian times and now forced to flee the country.

It is estimated that about 3,000 people leave Iraq everyday due to the violence. And the United Nations estimates that as many as 2.7 million Iraqis could flee the country by the end of 2007 if actions are not taken to curb the exodus. UNHCR has called the massive exodus of Assyrian Christians, who make up most of the Iraqi Christian population, a humanitarian crisis.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) earlier this year expressed serious concerns about the growing refugee crisis in Iraq, highlighting Christian Chaldo-Assyrian community as one of the most vulnerable in the country.

USCIRF had urged the U.S. government to take stronger action to allow Iraqi refugees to resettle in the country.

More than 1.8 million people have been displaced within Iraq and nearly 2 million forced to seek refuge in other countries since the 2003 U.S.-led offensive. Although Christians compose only three percent of Iraq's 26 million people, they compose nearly half of the refugees fleeing Iraq, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

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