Gianni Valente (Vatican Insider, La Stampa) - Defending Middle Eastern Christians has become a strategic asset for Putin; it’s in perfect harmony with the MP’s mission. The Kremlin is about to consider granting citizenship to about 50,000 Syrian Christians in Qalamoun region (an-Nabk District. Rif Dimashq Governorate), after they issued a collective request to Moscow’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID).
In statements issued in the past few days, spokesmen for President Putin and the MID confirmed that the highest Russian authorities are examining the request.
“This is the first time since Christ’s birth that we, the Christians of Saidnaya and Maara Saidnaya, Ma’loula, and Maarun are being threatened with expulsion from our land”. The letter was full of praise for Putin’s Russia, which it described as a “powerful factor for global peace and stability”.However, its remarks about western countries were less flattering, “The aim of the Western-backed terrorists is to eliminate our presence in our homeland. They use the most abhorrent methods to achieve this, for example, murdering ordinary people”.
The fact that the Christian cause 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. An MP spokesman said that the letter from the Syrian Christians was proof of the “great authority” Russia has at the moment in the Middle East, “particularly, amongst the Christian minorities living in that area”. Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, the number two man of the MP DECR, said that Middle Eastern Christians “knew for centuries that no other country would look after their interests in the same way Russia would”.
To reaffirm the ties between Russia and the Churches in Syria, on 14 October the MDA decided to erect a sculptural 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 MDA wants the sculptural ensemble to be a symbol of peace in a country ravaged by war. This goes hand in hand with the MP’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 9/11 attacks, Patriarch Kirill Gundyaev 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 opened up for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. He referred explicitly to the negotiations over the dismantling of Syria’s chemical weapons.
The vicissitudes of the Middle Eastern Churches have always interested the Russian Orthodox Church (sic). Now, calls from Orthodox leaders for the protection of Arab Christians fit Putin’s plans for the Middle East like a glove. More than twenty years after the fall of the USSR, with the Soviet communist era’s atheist years long gone, Putin, in true neo-tsarist-style, reinstates himself as the protector of Middle Eastern Christians, as part of geopolitical policy.
The MP strengthened its relations with the Middle East’s battered Orthodox Churches by giving significant financial help… last August, it donated 300,000 USD to the Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East to help those in need as a result of the continuing civil war. In July, First Hierarchs and representatives of Middle Eastern Churches met Putin in person, during their visits to Moscow for the 1,025th anniversary of the Baptism of Rus. Patriarch Kirill was the last great foreign Christian leader to be received by Bashar al-Assad, in Damascus, back in November 2011, when 5,000 people had already lost their lives in the conflict.
However, whilst Russia strengthens its defence of Middle Eastern Christians, the French, who were once big protectors of these Christian communities, are becoming increasingly less so now. Middle Eastern Church leaders have lost trust in French foreign policy, which supports the Arab uprisings.
On a visit to Paris in September 2011, Sarkozy criticised Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi for 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 a spark of democracy. Two years on, Islamist groups have hijacked the revolt against the régime, Syriac Catholic Archbishop Jacques Behnan Hindo of Hassaké-Nisibi told Vatican Insider, “In our last interview, I made it very clear to the foreign affairs minister’s secretary, Laurent Fabius… you talk about the war in Syria, about who must win, who needs to go. Nevertheless, you never ask what the expectations and desires of the Syrian people are. Maybe, you haven’t yet realised that the French protectorate over Syria ended some time ago”.