Pope urges release of two priests kidnapped in Iraq

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VATICAN CITY, Oct 14 (Reuters) Pope Benedict appealed today for the release of two Catholic priests kidnapped in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, with reports in Iraq saying they were being held for 1 million dollars ransom.

The Pontiff told pilgrims at his weekly Angelus address in St Peter's Square that two priests of the Syrian Catholic Church had been taken ''and are now threatened with death''.

''I appeal to the kidnappers to release these two priests quickly and I underline once again that violence cannot bring relief to this tense situation,'' said the Pope.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mike Donnelly, US military spokesman in northern Iraq, said the military was investigating local intelligence reports which said the priests were being held by an unidentified group for 1 million dollars ransom.

''It's another barbaric tactic and it's a sign that they're desperate,'' Donnelly said of the kidnapping.

Sectarian violence has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Religious figures from Iraq's majority Shi'ite and minority Sunni Arab Muslim communities are common targets, but smaller sects have also been targeted by kidnappers.

A UN report on human rights in Iraq released last week said the situation of minority communities, including Christians, had ''deteriorated significantly'' since mid-April in many parts of the country.

A Chaldean Catholic priest and five Christians with him were kidnapped by unidentified gunmen in Baghdad in June but were released about two weeks later.

Another Chaldean priest was killed in Mosul in June.

The Chaldean rite is one of the ancient rites of the Catholic Church. Its members, mostly in Iraq and Syria, are in unity with Rome.

REUTERS PD KN1936

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