He is believed to be the highest-profile Christian to be abducted in Iraq.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen seized the Syrian Catholic archbishop of Mosul on Monday as he was on his way to visit parishioners in an attack the Vatican denounced as "an act of terrorism."
No group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of Archbishop Basile Georges Casmoussa, but Islamic extremists have increasingly targeted the country's tiny Christian minority in a campaign that's included bombing churches in Mosul and Baghdad.
Elsewhere, insurgents killed at least 15 Iraqi security personnel in continued violence ahead of the Jan. 30 elections.
Casmoussa, 66, had left his church in Mosul to visit a family in his congregation when he was ambushed at sunset, said Archbishop Matti Shaba, who heads the church's Baghdad diocese. Shaba said church officials in Mosul told him that two carloads of attackers pulled Casmoussa from his car and stuffed him in the trunk of one of their vehicles before fleeing.
Maj. James Street, an Army spokesman in Mosul, said he had no details to release Monday night.
Shaba sounded shaken during a telephone interview. "This country has become a jungle and the strong are eating the weak," he said. Shaba described Casmoussa as "a religious man who stayed away from politics."
"Why did they kidnap him?" Shaba asked. "He was calling for religious tolerance."
Casmoussa is believed to be the highest-profile Christian to be abducted in Iraq. His kidnapping is the latest setback for a minority community that's already weathered attacks on Christian-owned liquor stores, threats against women who don't cover their hair, and a rash of church bombings in August and October that killed 10 people and wounded 50 in Baghdad and Mosul.
About 700,000 Christians live in Iraq, making up about 3 percent of the country's population. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Christians have fled Iraq in recent months after finding themselves increasingly persecuted by extremists. Fear of attack led many church leaders to cancel Christmas events last month.
Shaba said the Vatican was notified of the incident and that representatives there condemned it as terrorism.
"The Vatican knows about it and they are calling on the kidnappers to release him," Shaba said. "I hope the media and international community put pressure on the terrorists to stop."
The Syrian Catholic Church is affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church as part of the so-called Eastern Rite churches in the Middle East, which recognize the pope but maintain worship practices of their own. The church has two Iraq dioceses, the one in Mosul and the one in Baghdad.
Pope John Paul II opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, and he urged more protection for Iraqi Christians in a November meeting with interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.
During his visit with Allawi at the Vatican, the pope said "the Christian community, present in Iraq since the apostolic times, will make its own contribution to the growth of democracy and the building of a future of peace in the region."
Several Christian candidates are on the ballot for the Jan. 30 parliamentary elections, but like most of the candidates they do little campaigning in the bloody pre-election environment.
Series of attacks
In other violence Monday, insurgents targeted the country's nascent security forces in a series of attacks that killed at least 15. Insurgents gunned down eight Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint in the town of Buhriz, about 35 miles north of the capital. A car bomber killed seven Iraqi policemen and wounded 25 bystanders in Bayji, 155 miles north of Baghdad.
A suicide bomber attacked American Marines in Ramadi, but the military released no casualty figures, citing security reasons. Also in Ramadi, west of Baghdad and near the volatile town of Fallujah, insurgents beheaded two Shiite Muslims and dumped their bodies on a sidewalk, according to military statements and news reports.
The U.S. military announced the arrests of 100 suspected insurgents in the past three days as part of a crackdown ahead of the elections. Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander of the multinational forces in Iraq, released a statement Monday saying Iraqi and coalition forces would be ready to protect voters on Jan. 30.
Iraqi security forces are widely viewed as ill equipped and poorly trained. Few have gone through rigorous vetting, and all branches of the forces are thought to be infiltrated by insurgents.
"Is there going to be violence on Election Day? There is, but it's important that we understand what's happening here," Casey said in his statement. "It's not just about violence. It's about the former regime loyalists and foreign terrorists murdering innocent Iraqis and Iraqi security forces to stop them from exercising their right to vote."
As of Monday, at least 1,366 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,071 died as a result of hostile action, the Defense Department said. The figures include three military civilians.