Christian priest slain in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

BAGHDAD -- A Christian priest was shot dead outside his home in Baghdad yesterday by attackers who used a silenced pistol, witnesses said. His wife, they said, who stood near him, did not realize he had been shot until well after he had fallen.

The priest, the Rev. Faiz Abdel, who was known as Father Youssef, was the second senior Syrian Orthodox priest to be killed this year. And since the 2003 invasion, church officials say, about 40 percent of the denomination, the country's second-largest Christian group, have fled their homes.

Youssef, 49, was shot shortly before noon as he and his wife returned home from a market in the Unity District of east Baghdad.

Friends and officials at SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral, just around the corner from his house, said that the cleric's wife had just left the car and was walking across the driveway to the house when he was hit by three or four bullets to the chest and shoulder as he went to close the gate. The gunmen escaped.

As mourners gathered outside the gate of the priest's home, Archbishop Severius Hawa, primate of the Diocese of Baghdad and Basra, paid tribute to "our son, the martyr."

Speaking from the heavily barricaded cathedral, Hawa said: "This tragedy came as a surprise to us because we did not receive any threat.

"He was still in his religious garments, so we believe they followed him from the market to his house and killed him. The most important point is that he was killed because he was a religious man."

But the archbishop said the "hand of the devil" was directed at all Iraqi sects, Muslim and Christian alike.

"Educated people, scientists, those who are working for the benefit of the country are all targeted," he said. "If we lose one from our sect, 100 will be lost from other sects."

Mourners said that while Youssef appeared to have been singled out because of his distinctive black robes, many of the threats and attacks were by criminal gangs demanding money under the pretext of being Islamic fundamentalists.

"I had to move out of my house in Dora a year and a half ago, because I received two letters threatening to kill my son," said Abu Noor, 59. "I paid them $900, and nothing happened."

"All educated people are targeted: It is the fault of the Americans. When they discharged the army, everything was lost," he said, referring to the decision by the American occupation authority to dismiss the entire Iraqi army in 2003. "These people had no work and no money to live, so, of course, they will go into gangs. And a weak government with no police detectives, how can they manage?"

The killing of Faiz Abdel follows the death of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, the leader of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Mosul, whose body was found buried in the northern city last month after gunmen kidnapped him in February.

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