(Rome/Terrasanta.net) – When Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Pope Francis on Nov. 25th, persecuted Christians in the Middle East will be central to the discussions, potentially acting as a catalyst towards warmer Catholic-Orthodox relations.
The foreign interests of both the Patriarchate of Moscow and the Kremlin are both dedicated to helping persecuted Christians, with the Kremlin 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 partly due its strategic naval defence location in the Mediterranean and the need to maintain energy exports. The region also offers Russia an opportunity to exert its status on the world stage while resistance to rising Islamism in Syria and the wider region is important to a Kremlin anxious about Muslim extremists in the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus republics.
Putin sees protecting Christians as a key factor in maintaining regional stability. Last month, around 50,000 Syrian Christians applied for Russian citizenship and the Kremlin is seriously considering the request. Their application, made in a letter, was full of 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 for supporting terrorists whose aim is “to eliminate our presence in our homeland.”
A spokesman at the Patriarchate of Moscow 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, number two 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 Assad. In an editorial in the New York Times Sept. 11, Putin made a point of mentioning Pope Francis and his warnings against military strikes on Syria after the Pontiff mentioned his concerns in a letter to Putin at the G20 meeting in St. Petersburg in the same month.
Last week, in his first telephone conversation with President Assad in two years, Putin urged the Syrian leader 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 Levant is to Russia, both on a church and state level, was underlined recently by the Russian Orthodox Church’s “foreign minister.”
Shortly before leaving for Rome earlier this month, Metropolitan Hilarion, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations in the Russian Orthodox Church, met with a number of state, political and religious officials in Beirut.
In the closed door meeting he said he brought with him a number of messages, the most important of which was Russia’s decision to effectively act as the protector of Christians in the Levant and as their defender and legal representative – perhaps 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 said.
But what makes Russia’s interests in the region so potent is the alliance between the Kremlin and the Orthodox in support of Christians is stronger than at any time in the post-communist era.
And the alliance is strengthening Catholic and Orthodox dialogue. Although Church leaders have expressed some dissatisfaction with progress in dialogue on a theological level, a good deal of common ground exists when it comes to the Middle East and moral values.
This can only help to foster a closer alliance between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, further increasing the chances of the long hoped-for meeting between a Catholic pope and a Russian Orthodox patriarch since the Great Schism of 1054.
It will also give Christians in the region timely, valuable and much needed support.