When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Pope Francis on Nov. 25, persecuted Christians in the Middle East will be not only central to their discussions but also significant to bringing the Catholics and the Orthodox closer together.
The foreign interests of both the Moscow Patriarchate (the church of Russia) and the Kremlin are dedicated to helping persecuted Christians, and the Kremlin is increasingly disposed to being a mediator between East and West, especially when it comes to Syria.
The Russian government has long had a number of close allies in the region, in part due its wish to safeguard a strategic naval defence in the Mediterranean and energy routes. The region also appeals to Putin’s nationalist tendencies, presenting an opportunity to exert Russia’s status on the world stage. Furthermore, the Kremlin has an interest in stemming rising Islamism in Syria and beyond, particularly in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republics.
That Putin sees Christians as a key factor in maintaining regional stability is not lost on the local people. Last month, around 50,000 Syrian Christians applied for Russian citizenship and the Kremlin is seriously considering their request.
The letter of application had fulsome praise for Putin’s Russia, which they described as a “powerful factor for global peace and stability.” By contrast, they were critical of the West’s support for “terrorists,” whose aim, they wrote, is “to eliminate our presence in our homeland.”
A spokesman at the Moscow Patriarchate said the request was proof of the “great authority” Russia currently has in the Middle East, “particularly among the Christian minorities living in that area.”
Archpriest Nikolaj Balashov, No. 2 at the Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, pointed out that Russia’s support is not new in the region: For centuries, he said, “no other country would look after their interests in the same way Russia would.”
Both state and church have been increasingly vocal on behalf of Christians in the Middle East. Earlier this year, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill sent President Barack Obama a letter, asking him to listen to religious leaders who “unanimously” opposed military intervention against President Bashar al-Assad.
In an editorial in “The New York Times” on Sept. 11, Putin made a point of mentioning Pope Francis and his warnings against military strikes on Syria.
The article followed a letter from the Pope to Putin at the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg in the same month which is said to have elicited a good reaction, especially among the Russian intelligentia.
The alliance between the Pope, Putin, and Patriarch Kirill over Syria, particularly the Pope’s peace vigil on Sept. 7, “was crucial for avoiding the start of a war in Syria whose consequences no one was able to foresee,” says Jesuit professor Germano Marani of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. “The Western press has likely not much appreciated that.”
Putin has also kept up his efforts on behalf of Christians. Last week, in his first telephone conversation with Assad in two years, the Russian leader urged the Syrian president to do all he could to alleviate the suffering of civilians and voiced concern over the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities by extremists in the country.
Just how important the Mediterranean region of Levant is to Russia, both on a church and state level, was underlined recently by the Russian Orthodox Church’s “foreign minister.”
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev told political and religious officials in Beirut earlier this month of Russia’s decision to effectively act as the protector of Christians in the Levant and as their defender and legal representative — perhaps, he said, the only real one they have on an international level.
The goals, principles, and interests of the Russian Federation are predicated on “the survival of Levantine Christians in their countries, and their peaceful coexistence with their Muslim compatriots, away from external attempts to destabilize those countries,” he added.
But what makes Russia’s interests in the region so potent is the alliance between the Kremlin and the Orthodox in support of Christians — which is stronger than at any time in the post-communist era.
The closer ties, though, with obvious associated problems, are nevertheless also strengthening Catholic and Orthodox relations.
A good deal of common ground exists when it comes to the Middle East and moral values, and a unified voice is helping to further the chances of the first, long hoped-for meeting between a Catholic Pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the East-West Schism of 1054, in which Chalcedonian Christianity broke into Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) divisions, which later became commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, respectively.
“Though many have doubted [Putin’s] intentions and continue to do so, at least there is a continual and repeated insistence on the ethical issues that are the order of the day,” says professor Marani. The Russian government, he adds, is one of the “few institutional voices” to raise such ethical questions at the international level.
This and other factors have led to “significant advances” in Catholic-Orthodox relations, the Jesuit says. “A certain attitude of distrust toward Catholics is gradually changing.”
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