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Pope Expresses Sorrow Over Killing of Envoy to Burundi - 2003-12-30

Pope John Paul has called on the citizens of Burundi to reject violence the day after the Vatican's representative to the small African nation was shot and killed in an ambush. Burundi's authorities blamed rebels for the killing.

The pope expressed his deep sorrow and dismay over the death Monday of Archbishop Michael Courtney, who had been sent to Burundi as papal envoy in August 2000.

In a letter to the head of Burundi's bishops conference, the pope said he was deeply moved by the terrible news of the violent death of the Irish-born prelate. He described Archbishop Courtney as "a loyal and unselfish servant of the Church."

The 58-year-old archbishop died during surgery at a hospital in Bujumbura after the car he was traveling in was sprayed with bullets from a nearby hill.

Still unclear is who was responsible for the attack, which took place less than 50 kilometers from the capital. Burundi's authorities have blamed rebels of the National Liberation Forces, but the group has denied involvement and blamed the army.

The international community expressed outrage and condemnation at what was described by many as "a senseless killing" of a man who had taken an active role in helping to bring peace to Burundi.

A peace agreement was signed between the government of Burundi and the largest rebel group last month, bringing relative calm to a country after a decade of fighting.

A funeral service will be held Wednesday in Bujumbura, after which the prelate's body will be flown to his native Ireland for burial.