Christians press for autonomy

Kurdish politician has drawn controversy for the secrecy of his plan to secure an independent region for Christians.

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A Kurdistan politician, dreaming of an independent region for Christians, offered free homes as they fled the violence in Baghdad after the US invasion. His secrecy about the plan, however, has raised the suspicion of his opponents, Phil Sands, foreign correspondent, reports. Erbil, iraq // When Sarkis Agajan was a child, he harboured a dream that one day there would be a corner of Muslim-dominated Iraq set aside for Christians. An independent area where they could rule themselves and, if necessary, be safe from their enemies.

With the country now gripped by instability, the reclusive 46-year-old believes there is a unique opportunity to push the controversial plan ahead. "We have been demanding autonomy from the last century, but the national and international circumstances meant it was something we couldn't realise," Mr Agajan said in a rare interview with The National at his opulent Erbil home. "Then in 2004 our people were displaced and that gave me the momentum and enthusiasm to go on."

As sectarian violence engulfed post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, terrified Christian families began to flee from Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. Mr Agajan gave them an attractive alternative to leaving the country entirely: he offered to build for them each, free of charge, a new house in the predominantly Christian parts of northern Iraq where the security situation was less dire. The population of Christian villages had been dwindling since the 1950s, as residents moved abroad or to the big cities. The migration was accelerated, sometimes forcibly, under the Baathist regime, and Iraqi Christians began to assimilate into a national culture that was officially secular and, at street level, primarily Islamic.

It was a trend that alarmed Christian nationalists, stoking fears their religion and culture were withering away and would eventually disappear. In the carnage and bloodshed following the US-led invasion of 2003 however, Mr Agajan and his supporters saw a chance to reverse the tide and repopulate the villages. "The fact of Christians fleeing the country was closely linked to the idea of autonomy for our people," he said. "You cannot have autonomy unless you have living villages, and you cannot have living villages unless someone wants to stay there.

"When we have our people on our land we will be in a better position to demand our rights." After a series of bomb explosions outside churches in Baghdad in 2004, Mr Agajan, at the time deputy prime minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), set up rehousing committees for Christians leaving the capital. They received the refugees in Kurdistan and began building homes for those who made a pledge to stay.

Since then, Mr Agajan said, 105 villages or compounds were rebuilt, and at least two settlements constructed, which accommodated 20,000 displaced Christians in Ninewah, Dohuk and Erbil provinces. It is these areas that Mr Agajan hopes will one day form an autonomous Christian land, although he admits the precise boundaries have not been defined, even in his mind. Key Christian villages are in the heart of disputed zones claimed both by Kurds and Arabs, putting the Christian autonomy project firmly in the centre of one of Iraq's most divisive political issues. This year, the Kurdish authorities, in principle, recognised the right of Christian autonomy in areas under their administration. Baghdad has yet to do the same.

"It is really problematic to answer the question of borders," Mr Agajan said. "Our people live in Ninewah province administered by Baghdad, and others are in Dohuk province, administered from Kurdistan. "The fate of our people in Ninewah hasn't been settled, they are included in Article 140 [dealing with] disputed areas, but we will not wait anymore for that issue to be decided. We already have villages in the Kurdish areas where we can establish our autonomous institutions.

"We are not in a position to wait for the whole [Christian] area to be unified and then demand autonomy. We are demanding autonomy in both places. It is probable that the areas belonging to Ninewah will not be part of the KRG, but if we have a national right [to autonomy] within the Iraqi constitution then we will be in a position to establish autonomy in areas outside of the KRG as well." Other details of what a future autonomous Christian area would look like remain similarly vague. There is talk of governmental institutions with independent budgets, a security force and police service, autonomous laws and elections that all Iraqi Christians can participate in and equal rights for non-Christians living in the autonomous zone. The Christian area would remain inside a federal Iraq. Such matters can be thrashed out at a future date, according to Mr Agajan. His opponents - many of whom are other Christians - insist that without clarity all talk of autonomy is empty.

The plan is highly contentious, even among Christians - some fear the creation of a religious ghetto - and Mr Agajan himself has been at the heart of the controversy. His opponents accuse him of being obsessively secretive, both personally and in his political designs. Millions of dollars have been pumped into rebuilding the villages but no one seems sure of exactly how much or where the money comes from, prompting speculation of varying plausibility: that the Vatican has been pouring in cash; that Mr Agajan uses his own money; that American and European donors are trying to divide and weaken Iraq via the Christians; that the Kurdish are buying Christian lands and loyalty as part of their own independence project, using Mr Agajan as a front.

Mr Agajan's own explanation is more prosaic. As a powerful politician in the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, he was able to direct KRG money to projects of his choosing, and he chose the villages. "It's all government money and as you know, whatever is spent in the KRG, there is auditing and follow up," he said. He, however, declined to put even an approximate figure on how much had been spent to date. "It's quite normal in eastern countries to mention the prime minister doing this project as if it's his own money, even if it isn't. People think it's a personal project," he said.

"I was deputy prime minister. They have the power to order projects to be held, that's part of his powers. I enjoy this authority. When I have this authority why wouldn't I use it for my own people. This is a natural right." Open political allegiance to the Kurds is perhaps the major cause of suspicion about Mr Agajan's motives and plans. Even some Christians who favour autonomy believe he is willingly working for - or being unwittingly manipulated by - Kurdish interests. The Kurds have made little secret of their belief that large areas of Ninewah belong to them, and a Kurd-funded Christian autonomous zone could end up as a proxy for Erbil, handing the Kurds de facto control of the territory they covet.

Whatever the outcomes of the autonomy project, Mr Agajan made it evident that his own motivations are religious. "I'm very religious," Mr Agajan said. "For everything I do, I have instructions from the Holy Spirit. I never plan. It is Jesus Christ who plans things in me. Quite often when I plan something in my mind, the Holy Spirit will advise me not to do this. "Although this might be seen as something of a weakness for a politician, for me it is a power."