BEIRUT, Lebanon – In an exclusive interview with Newsmax, a Chaldean bishop decried Kurdish efforts to buy off church leaders to gain control over the Nineveh province in northern Iraq, where mostly Christians and Sunni Muslims live.
The systematic corruption scheme has disenfranchised Christians there, stifled development, and created a climate of suspicion that has contributed to Sunni groups’ kidnapping and murder of Christians, said Bishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk.
The Sunnis, who view the Christians as political allies of the Kurds, and the Kurds dispute control over the rich oil fields of Kirkuk and Mosul.
Until recently, the public face on the scheme has been Sarkis Aghajan, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) finance minister and a prominent Assyrian Christian the Pope has decorated.
“Sarkis has spent a lot of money to gain people for that project,” Bishop Sako said, referring to Kurdish plans to gain control over the Nineveh Plain and possibly even Mosul, the provincial capital.
“The only party that is a little bit independent of him is the movement,” he said, a reference to the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), a fierce political opponent of Aghajan.
Aghajan and the KRG have “purchased the allegiance of religious leaders with a lot of money, even salaries,” the bishop told Newsmax in Beirut last week. “I am the only one in my diocese who has refused. I and my priests have refused to take anything from him. We have no relations with him.”
Sako was careful not to attack Aghajan personally. “He is a good man. I have met him twice. I have nothing against him,” he said.
But he fiercely condemned the policy of using government money as political bribes.
“We’ve heard that this money is for all Christians. It is from the national budget. We heard that Christians are supposed to have 3 percent. So why is he using this money individually and in a chaotic way without plans? Why is he giving it to everybody as gifts without controls? Thousands, millions of dollars. For what? This is very bad.”
Like many secular leaders I interviewed in northern Iraq last year, Sako said the aid money Aghajan distributed amounted to paying bribes with what appeared to be government money.
Development aid should be spent with strict controls, in a transparent manner, he said. “With a commission, he could create a paradise, not only in the Nineveh Plain, but all over the area, with schools, projects, and services.”
Instead, Aghajan was using the money primarily to build sumptuous new churches that have remained empty and vast new houses for compliant bishops.
“Now the bishop has no authority over his priests because all of them are receiving money,” Sako said. “This is very bad. Instead of helping Christians to be stronger, to be protected, to keep them inside Iraq, he is encouraging them to leave. Half of them are living in miserable conditions [as refugees] in Syria and Lebanon. Why is he not helping them? Why is he not encouraging them to come back? I think there is a puzzle behind that.”
Kurdish officials frequently point to the presence of Aghajan in the regional government as proof of their democracy. The enigmatic Assyrian finance minister has been a lifelong friend of Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and he rose to become one of the top officials in his Kurdish Democratic Party.
[Editor's Note: Read “Kurdistan Minister – Rich Star, or Pawn?” — Go Here Now].
Aghajan has not appeared in public in more than three months, and rumors are circulating that he has been murdered or eliminated over billions of dollars of customs duties in a dispute between the two main parties that control the KRG.
The official KRG story is that he has gone overseas to seek medical treatment.
Bishop Sako came to Lebanon to address a conference on the plight of Iraqi Christians that brought together leaders from the four main Christian denominations in Iraq.
Just hours before the conference began Thursday, two representatives from the government’s Religious Endowment Ministry demanded time to present the views of their government, which claims that it is providing extensive help to displaced Christians from other parts of Iraq.
“They were furious,” an aide to the Chaldean bishop who organized the conference told Newsmax. “They didn’t want an independent Christian voice to be heard, and tried to claim that the KRG was protecting Christians and giving them all that they need.”
The organizing bishop, Michel Kassarji, has been using his staff to hector Iraqi refugees to go home to rebuild their country. He blasted the Iraqi government and the United States for not providing development assistance to the Nineveh Plain region, where large numbers of Christians live under the “protection” of Kurdish militias.
“Where is the irrigation project for the Nineveh Plain that was planned years ago? Until now, nothing has been done,” he told Newsmax in a separate interview in Beirut Tuesday.
Without development assistance, basic infrastructure and jobs, Christians will continue to flee Iraq, he said.
Kassarji said he also had met with Aghajan and asked why he was doing nothing to help the Christians who had to flee Iraq because of violent Islamist groups’ threats.
“I told him that we needed aid for refugees who are living in Lebanon so they can send their children to school. We need food aid, medical assistance. He replied: ‘That’s not our responsibility. We give no aid to those who leave Iraq.’ ”
In 2006, the Iraqi government said it would send $2 million to Lebanon to help Iraqi citizens who had fled there because of the sectarian violence at home. Instead, the money disappeared into the Lebanese state treasury, where it was spent to help the Iranian-backed Hezbollah party and others in south Lebanon after the 2006 war with Israel.
Bishop Kassarji called on the church to serve the faithful in Iraq better, and on the U.S. and Iraqi governments to assume their responsibilities for a situation created by the war and the sectarian violence that ensued.
“The Americans brought freedom to Iraq. This is true. The country is now open. But who is responsible for the exile of 300,000 Iraqi Christians?”
He also repeated the call he made at last week’s conference of Iraqi church leaders in Lebanon to the Muslim states to do their part to curb the violence.
“We are the descendants of Hammurabi. We are older than Islam; and now, we live in fear. It is unacceptable that we have to ask [Muslim clerics] to issue decrees to be nice to Christians.”
Bishop Kassarji called on the U.S. government to play a more active role in protecting Christians in Iraq and in ensuring equal rights for all minorities.
“There are lots of Muslims who live in America like Americans. There are lots of Muslims who live in Europe in freedom. We ask that Christians who live in Iraq have the same freedoms that Muslims enjoy elsewhere,” he said.
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