Source: Vatican Insider
Defending Middle Eastern Christians has become a strategic asset for Putin and is in perfect harmony with the Patriarchate of Moscow’s mission
The Kremlin is about to consider granting citizenship to about 50 thousand Syrian Christians in the region of Qualamun after they issued a collective request to Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In statements issued in the past few days, the spokesmen for President Putin and the Ministry confirmed that the request is being examined by the highest Russian authorities. “This is the first time since Christ’s birth that we, the Christians of Saidnaya and Maara Saidnaya, Maalula and Maarun are being threatened with expulsion from our land.”
The letter was full of praise for Putin’s Russia, which was described as a “powerful factor for global peace and stability”. But its remarks about western countries were less flattering: “the aim of the terrorists who are being supported by the West, is to eliminate our presence in our homeland. They use the most abhorrent methods to achieve this, murdering ordinary people for example.”
The fact that the Christian cause has caught the attention of the highest levels of Russia’s government seems to imply that the Kremlin sees their case as important in terms of geopolitics. Indeed this may be the main reason Russia has been defending their cause. The Patriarchate of Moscow’s spokesman said that the letter from the 50 thousand was proof of the “great authority” Russia has at the moment in the Middle East, “particularly among the Christian minorities living in that area.” Middle Eastern Christians “have known for centuries that no other country would look after their interests in the same way Russia would,” said Archpriest Nikolaj Balashov, the number two man of the Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations. “To reaffirm the ties between Russia and the Churches in Syria, on 14 October the Moscow Spiritual Academy decided to erect a sculpture ensemble with a statue of Jesus at its centre, on a mountain in Syria which is also home to the Marian shrine of Saidnaya. Arab Christian pilgrims come to this shrine from all over the Middle East. The sculpture ensemble was intended as a symbol of peace in a country ravaged by war. This goes hand in hand with the Patriarchate of Moscow’s active efforts to champion the Middle Eastern Christian cause in the face of Islamist violence.
To express his concern for these Christians in a politically eloquent way ahead of the 12th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Patriarch Kirill sent Barack Obama a letter, asking the US president to listen to the cries of religious leaders who “unanimously” opposed proposals for military intervention against Assad. In his message, the Patriarch talked about “the threat of mass extermination or exile” faced by Christians in the Middle East. He urged others to join Russia’s diplomatic efforts and make the most of the opportunities that have opened up for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.” He referred explicitly to the negotiations over the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The Russian Orthodox Church has always been interested in the vicissitudes of the Middle Eastern Churches. Now, the Orthodox leaders’ calls for the protection of Christians in Arab countries fits Putin’s plans for the Middle East like a glove. More than twenty years after the fall of the USSR and with the Soviet communist era’s atheist years long gone, Putin is, in true neo-Zarist-style, reinstating himself as protector of Eastern Christians, as part of geopolitical policy.
The Patriarchate of Moscow has strengthened its relations with the Middle East’s battered Orthodox Churches by giving significant financial help: last August, the Russian Orthodox Church donated 300 thousand dollars to the Patriarchate of Antioch to help those who are suffering as a result of the conflict. In July, Primates and representatives of Middle Eastern Churches met Putin in person, during their visit to Moscow for the 1025th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. Kirill was the last great foreign Christian leader to be received by Bashar al Assad, in Damascus, back in November 2011, when 5 thousand people had already lost their lives in the conflict.
But while Russia strengthens its defence of Middle Eastern Christians, the French, who were once big protectors of these Christian communities are now becoming increasingly less so. Eastern Church leaders have been losing trust in French foreign policy which supports the Arab uprisings. On a visit to Paris in September 2011, Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi was criticised by Sarkozy or not showing enough enthusiasm for the so-called “Arab Springs”. The former French President was convinced that these revolts were going to wipe Assad out and light the spark of democracy.
Two years on, the revolts against the regime have been taken over by Islamist groups, Syriac Catholic archbishop, Behnam Hindo told Vatican Insider: “I made it very clear to the foreign affairs minister’s secretary, Laurent Fabius in our last interview: you talk about the war in Syria, about who must win, who needs to go. But you never ask what the expectations and requests of the Syrian people are. Maybe you haven’t yet realised that the French protectorate over Syria ended some time ago.”