Iraqi priests freed after Mosul kidnap ordeal

Mosul, Iraq - Two Iraqi Catholic priests abducted more than a week ago in the northern city of Mosul were released alive and well on Sunday, church negotiators said.

Fathers Pius Affas and Mazen Ishoa, who were kidnapped last Saturday after being threatened by an unknown group, were now back at their church in Mosul, the negotiators told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"The two priests were left this morning by the kidnappers on a street in the middle of Mosul," they said.

"The priests then took a taxi and went to their church, which is now looking after them and won't let anyone speak to them."

The kidnappers had demanded a ransom of one million dollars, a bishop told AFP earlier in the week, but it was not immediately clear if any money had been handed over to ensure the priests' freedom.

Father Affas, who is in his 60s, and Father Ishoa, in his 30s, were sent a letter two months ago warning of an attack if they did not leave the city, according to Rome-based missionary agency Middle East Concern.

Father Affas is originally from Mosul, a bastion of the Sunni insurgency, and has been a priest for more than 40 years, while Father Ishoa is from a Christian village south of the city, the agency said.

Syro-Catholic Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa was in charge of the negotiations to free the priests, Middle East Concern said.

One 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," he said. "I call on the abductors to rapidly liberate the two clerics and I reiterate that violence does not resolve tensions."

The release was welcomed by the Vatican.

"We are extremely pleased with the release because we had worked intensively as it was a source of great concern," said Father Federico Lombardi, head of Vatican's media office.

"This is a sign of peace which we hope improves. We hope that such kidnappings will not be repeated."

Middle East Concern said earlier in the week that the kidnappers had withdrawn an agreement for their release and demanded a larger ransom.

Iraq's Christians, a tiny minority of about 700,000, have been the target of sectarian cleansing, killings and kidnappings at the hands of both Sunni and Shiite Islamists, as well as criminal gangs.

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 size, with more people joining the exodus each day.