Paulos Faraj Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop who was kidnapped in Iraq last month, has been found dead, church officials in Rome and Baghdad said today.
It was not clear if he died as a result of his precarious health or if he was killed, they added.
The Vatican said Pope Benedict was immediately informed and was "profoundly moved and saddened" by the news.
"Archbishop Rahho is dead. We found his lifeless body near Mosul. The kidnappers had buried him," Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad was quoted as telling SIR, the news agency of the Italian Bishops Conference.
It quoted Warduni as saying the kidnappers had told Iraqi church officials yesterday that Rahho was very ill and, later yesterday, that he was dead.
The Chaldean patriarch of Baghdad, Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, confirmed the news. "Yes he died," he told Reuters in Baghdad.
Rahho was seized on 29 February after gunmen attacked his car in eastern Mosul, 240 miles north of Baghdad, killing his driver and two guards.
"This morning they called us to tell us that they had buried him. Some of our young people followed the indications that the kidnappers had given to reach the site," the agency quoted Warduni as saying.
"They dug there and found the bishop lifeless. We still don't know if he died of causes linked to his precarious health or if he was killed. The kidnappers only told us that he was dead," he said.
Chaldeans belong to a branch of the Roman Catholic Church that practices an ancient Eastern rite and form the biggest Christian community in Iraq.
"All of us had continued to pray and hope for his release, which the Pope had repeatedly urged," Vatican spokesman Reverend Federico Lombardi said in a statement shortly after news of the death.