There were celebrations this morning (Sunday 21 October) at the news that two Iraqi Catholic priests abducted over a week ago in the northern city of Mosul had been released alive and well.
Father Pius Affas and Father Mazen Ishoa, seized on Saturday 13 October 2007 after receiving threats from an unknown group, are now back at their church in Mosul, Christian leaders involved in their release told news agencies today.
It is unknown if any money had been paid to the kidnappers. The captors were alleged by church sources to have issued a 72-hour deadline for a ransom of one million US dollars.
Father Affas, aged 62, and Father Ishoa, aged 35, were sent a letter two months ago warning of an attack if they did not leave the city, according to Rome-based missionary agency called Middle East Concern.
A week ago, the day after the priests were abducted, Pope Benedict XVI issued a plea from the Vatican for their release.
"I learned today that two priests from the archdiocese of Mosul were kidnapped and threatened with death," the pontiff declared. "I call on the abductors to rapidly liberate the two clerics and I reiterate that violence does not resolve tensions."
Iraq's Christians, a beleagured minority whose numbers have dropped significantly since the US invasion in 2003 , have been the target of sectarian cleansing, killings and kidnappings at the hands of both Sunni and Shiite militants, as well as criminal gangs.
Many have fled the country as a result. Their churches have been bombed and homes confiscated. Without their own militia to defend them, the community is believed to have shrunk to half its previous number, with more joining the exodus each day.