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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • asshur

    Well, while focusing in the Orthodox the article makes an attempt to explain the awkward position of Christians (and other minorities, still unmentioned like Alawites) in the Levant: Between hammer and anvil. …

  • Brendan

    Your response to this article does a better job at informing us as to why the Patriarch of Moscow is hesitant to accept the uprising as compared to the original article. Reading the article all I got was, “How dare these Patriarchal religious guys oppose the progress of democracy and the rights of the people.”

    But perhaps I was being to critical.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    OK, it’s Friday afternoon and I have a drink in my hand. But I am seeing a similarity in the middle east to what happened at the end of WW-II. Now, I spent a few years living in Austria among many people from eastern Europe, and as an American it was sometimes an awkward situation. A great Slovakian friend, a Byzantine priest (Ruthenian Rite) who was married to an American from Colorado, told me of how the Americans (and Brits) basically gave eastern Europe to Stalin, much to the dismay, disappointment, and over the decades detriment to the people. They felt sold-out. Abandoned. Cheapened. It was eastern Europe, being sold out by western/Christian powers to the atheists.

    And now the west seems to be basically abdicating any western/Christian claim to anything in the mid-east. As tmatt said, the very birthplace of Christianity and I would add in many (not every) respects of Western Civilization. Being sold out, abandoned, etc., to Arab Spring. As if they were to say, “let them control defined geographic areas and we can contain them; plus they’ll be happy so maybe they’ll be more cooperative/collaborative.”

    Anyway, I see a kind of parallel. Could be a tequila-induced perception. Could be real.

    Also, democracy is a wonderful thing IF, IF, IF, there’s a Constitution in place that limits the power of the majority. Otherwise, it’s just totalitarianism.

    The NYT piece seems pretty well balanced, but are the Orthodox (and Christians generally) being thrown under the bus by the Obama administration (Hilary saying recently that Assad cannot prevail)? Politically Assad’s days seem numbered, but is the president adequately counting the religious cost? Ancient churches and communities eradicated. We know what happened to the Christians in the wake of an Arab Spring takeover. Is that what our country stands for? We live in strange times, indeed.

  • David A

    Every burned monastery deserves a front-page story. But those stories are typically buried, or not written at all.

  • Julia

    Penta: It’s amazing to realize how many Americans are not even aware of ancient Christians in the Near East.

    One thing the reporter should have mentioned -Syria has been a haven for Iraqi Christians. So – many of the Christians in Syria have already been chased out of their first homeland.

    In 2010, before the worst church bombings, USA Today had this to say about Iraqi refugees.

    Before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 there were about 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, a Muslim-dominated nation of nearly 30 million. Since then, about 50% of Iraq’s Christians have fled the country, taking refuge in neighboring Jordan, Syria, Europe and the USA, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

    My nephew is marrying a Catholic Assyrian of Iraqi extraction whose family is very despondent about the situation of their relatives back in the Nineveh area. Without a Christian-friendly Syria across the border, they will have nowhere to run, except maybe Jordan.

  • Jerry

    “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.”

    Of course the Assad regime is also executing many people in the streets including indiscriminately murdering babies if the reports are accurate. In fact, I’ve not read in the west of significant attacks by anti-Assad forces especially on civilians. I know about the fog of war, but I wonder about the motives of people making such claims. Do they know something we don’t or are they repeating pro-Assad propaganda for some purpose?

    The situation is ugly and that leads me to wonder what the blow-back will be if and when the anti-Assad forces take over. I imagine that supporters of Assad face a bleak future there. So I’d like to know about contingency plans for Assad supporters.

  • Harris

    Given that the Eastern Christians are largely overlooked in coverage of the mideast, I thought the NYT piece was valuable if only for bringing out the presence and significance of Christians in Syria. For added depth, the interview with Mark Katz on NPR this morning brought further insight into the complexities of the Russian stance in Syria.

  • Martha

    I suppose it’s official – there are no religious freedom issues to worry about. Oh, apologies to RNS, I meant of course “religious freedom” issues (don’t want to seem to be taking sides on this one, after all!)

    Given that the source of the news story above may possibly be biased towards a particular political/religious viewpoint, I can’t say how accurate the story is or, if it is correct, what the intentions of the State Department may be. But if the parts about the subsequent treatment of Christians in Iraq after the liberation and in various countries after the Arab Spring are correct, this may be one reason why the Russian Church is not eager to see the opposition geting unqualified support from the West.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Unfortunately there is the underlying pervasive attitude in the media and the academy that Middle Eastern History began with the rise of Islam. That there was no Christian Middle East long before the Islamic conquests. They seem to take the horrendously erroneous attitude that Christians are interlop[ers and invaders of Middle Eastern countries by way of the Crusades–not, what many historians now agree about the Crusades::that they were belated and badly carried out attempts of Western Christians to help their Eastern Christian co-religionists. (In modern terms virtual “Wars of Liberation.”)
    As for the Arab Spring and democracy. Remember, all the Checks and Balances in our Constitution were put in place because of our Founding Fathers fear and mistrust of the mob. Yet today we virtually deify “the mob” and treat democracy as if it were the answer to all problems.

  • Gomer

    Western Christians were not always there to help Eastern Christians. If the Crusaders had not looted Constantinople, the city would have withstood the Turkish invasions. Eastern Christians have always lived between a hammer (Western Christendom) and an anvil (Islam). Protestants were not exempt from this behavior – Swedish Lutherans routinely massacred Orthodox monks in Northwestern Russia, which is why the monasteries have such fortified walls. (Tragically one of these monasteries was defiled again by the Soviets, and became one of the most infamous gulags. In 1605, Poland’s clumsy attempt to conquer and convert Russia created a disaster for both nations, and during WW2 Croatia’s Catholic clergymen were operating death camps for Serbs.

    Islam was no better or worse to the Eastern Christians. In Crimea, Muslims Tatars ran the largest slave trade of the 19th century, provoking Catherine to finally conquer the whole Black Sea coast for Russia. Decades later, Britain was determined to give it back to them. In 1999 Western and Muslim nations were allied to separate Kosovo from Serbia, which removed a quarter of a million Christians from their ancient homeland. Only one member of NATO sided with Serbia, and it was the only Eastern Christian nation in the whole block – Greece.

  • asshur

    Almost exactly 250 years between the Sack of Constantinople and its Fall, are a gap too wide for a cause-effect. The Sack had, IMO a worse effect. It marked (sociologically) the point of no return of the division between Latin and Eastern (Orthodoxe) Churches …

    OTOH, secular Panarabism (many of whose founding figures where Christians) has always been seen with suspicion by the Western Powers, and the rise of Islamism after 1979 seems not to have changed (learnt) nothing in the State Departments. To add injury to insult, Dcn. Bradshaw’s last sentence reflects too realistically the mentality of our amateurish (re. RealPolitik) western politicians and media

  • Chris Jones

    Without a Christian-friendly Syria across the border, they will have nowhere to run, except maybe Jordan.

    And how long before the “Arab Spring” comes to Jordan, whose monarchy may be regarded as not democratic enough, too pro-Western, and not Islamic enough (just like Egypt, where Egyptian Christians are faring very poorly)?

  • HV Observer

    Interesting article, but what I really like is the illustration — Vladimir Vladimirovich giving Patriarch Kiril the evil eye in the Patriarch’s house.