Russian, Syria and the long lens of history

One of the most interesting facts about the branch of Orthodoxy to which my home parish belongs is that the Church of Antioch is one member of the family of Eastern churches that has rarely controlled its own culture and, thus, its own destiny. The same is true of the other ancient churches of the Middle East. Almost all of them have spent centuries and centuries of their history as minority groups in a region that is both complex and dangerous to religious minorities.

Thus, GetReligion readers will not be surprised to know that -- especially after the fall of Constantinople -- the larger churches in the family of Eastern Orthodoxy have been strong advocates of the protection of Christian minorities in the Middle East. Centuries of conflict between Russians and Turks leap to mind. There was that incident called the Crimean War.

This may not surprise GetReligion readers, but it appears to have been somewhat of a surprise to The New York Times editors who handled that recent news feature that ran under the headline, "Russian Church Is a Strong Voice Opposing Intervention in Syria."

Please understand that there is much to praise in this piece and it focuses on a crucial issue.

As others have written, Christian minorities in the wider Middle East have been caught in a painful vise throughout the Arab Spring. Take Egypt, for example. Consider the fallout for religious minorities in Iraq. It's hard to support someone like Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But what if majority rule is likely to be even more dangerous for at-risk minority groups?

Thus, there is this crucial background material near the top of this report:

It is clear by now that Russia’s government has dug in against outside intervention in Syria, its longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East. Less well known is the position taken by the Russian Orthodox Church, which fears that Christian minorities, many of them Orthodox, will be swept away by a wave of Islamic fundamentalism unleashed by the Arab Spring.

In his warnings, Patriarch Kirill I invokes Bolshevik persecution still fresh in the Russian imagination, writing of “the carcasses of defiled churches still remaining in our country.” This argument for supporting sitting leaders has reached a peak around Syria, whose minority population of Christians, about 10 percent, has been reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition against Mr. Assad, fearing persecution at those same hands if he were to fall. If the church’s advocacy cannot be said to guide Russia’s policy, it is one of the factors that make compromise with the West so elusive, especially at a time of domestic political uncertainty for the Kremlin.

“Someone once said George Soros was the only American citizen who has his own foreign policy,” said Andrei Zolotov Jr., a leading religion writer and chief editor of Russia Profile. “Well, the Moscow patriarchate is the only Russian entity with its own foreign policy.”

Yes, Vladimir V. Putin plays a strong role in this drama and he certainly flashed plenty of rubles at Orthodox leaders during the recent presidential elections to help rebuild the still weakened church infrastructure (after the persecutions during the 20th century, statistically the worse in the history of Christianity).

However, a key church leader was not interested in money:

... Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the patriarchate’s department of external church relations, did not ask for money. The issue of “Christianophobia” shot to the top of the church’s agenda a year ago, with a statement warning that “they are killing our brothers and sisters, driving them from their homes, separating them from their near and dear, stripping them of the right to confess their religious beliefs.” The metropolitan asked Mr. Putin to promise to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.

“So it will be,” Mr. Putin said. “There is no doubt at all.”

The article covers the key elements of this story -- in the present. Yes, Western leaders have told the church to prepare for the worst and cut ties in Syria. Yes, there have been symbolic incidents that show just how real the tensions and the dangers are in the region.

Take, for example, Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Damascus late last year:

By that point, the United Nations estimated that 3,500 people had been killed as government forces tried to put down the uprising, and the Arab League had suspended Syria’s membership in an attempt to increase diplomatic pressure. Metropolitan Hilarion said that “some analysts tried to dissuade the patriarch from going, saying that there is disorder in Syria, that the Assad regime is in international isolation and under great pressure.”

“But the patriarch never stops in the face of difficulties, and expressing solidarity to Ignatius, the Patriarch of Antioch, whom he has known for more than 40 years, was important right now,” the metropolitan said, in an interview posted on a church Web site. He also said that “any interpretation of the patriarch’s visit to Syria as support for the Assad regime is totally unfounded.”

Nevertheless, photos of the patriarch’s street procession alongside his Syrian counterpart showed the men flanked by people holding aloft Mr. Assad’s portrait. The patriarch made a sympathetic appearance with Mr. Assad, praising Syria’s treatment of Christians and making no mention of the mounting death toll.

Valid material, all of it.

The problem, as usual, is that these actions are framed solely in the context of contemporary politics. In a region in which persecutions and hostile regimes are discussed in terms of centuries and eras, religious leaders tend to think in broader historical terms. Tyrants come and go. But what is the long-term implication of the Christian faith being crushed and/or eliminated in the lands in which it was born? How many more ancient monasteries will vanish? How many more sanctuaries must burn?

It is likely that these were the primary concerns that drove the actions of Metropolitan Hilarion and Patriarch Kirill. The story needed a small dose of history, as well as its excellent summaries of the current realities.

This final quote was particularly moving for me, as an Antiochian Orthodox parishioner:

Usama Matar, an optometrist who has lived in Russia since 1983, said he did not harbor any illusions about Russia’s motives for defending Syrian Christians like himself, whom he called “small coins in a big game.” But he said there were few international players taking notice of Eastern Christians at all.

“The West is pursuing its own interests; they are indifferent to our fate,” he said. “I am not justifying the Assad regime -- it is dictatorial, we know this, it is despotic, I understand. But these guys, they don’t even hide their intention to build an Islamic state and their methods of battle, where they just execute people on the streets. That’s the opposition, not just the authorities. And we are between two fires.”

These fires have, of course, been burning for centuries.

PHOTO: Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir V. Putin.

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