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16525Russian Church is a Strong Voice Opposing Intervention in Syria

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  • Nina Tkachuk Dimas
    Jun 1, 2012

      Russian Church Is a Strong Voice Opposing Intervention in Syria
      Pool photo by Alexander Nemenov
      Russian Orthodox Church priests at a gathering in Moscow. By ELLEN BARRY
      Vladimir V. Putin visiting a church in Smolensk last year. He has sought the support of religious leaders to shore up his leadership.
      Opening an exhibition devoted to Syrian Christianity in a cathedral near the Kremlin, they commiserated with Russian priests and theologians about their shared anxiety: What would happen if Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, was forced from power?
      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.”
      Three and a half months ago, intent on achieving a commanding win in presidential elections, Vladimir V. Putin sought support from Russia’s religious leaders, pledging tens of millions of dollars to reconstruct places of worship and state financing for religious schools.
      But 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 request was one that plunged deep into geopolitics, since Christian minorities are aligned with several of the governments that have faced popular uprisings. The statements on “Christianophobia” amount to a denunciation of Western intervention, especially in Egypt and Iraq, which lost two-thirds of its 1.5 million Christians after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
      Western analysts acknowledge the dangers faced by Christians in Syria, but say the church would be wise to distance itself from the Assad government and prepare for a political transition.
      “What we see now in Syria is systemic failure — it’s brutal, it’s now an insurgency — but in the end it’s just systemic failure,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Syria. “If the Christian population and those that support it want a long-term future in the region, they’re going to have to accept that hitching their wagon to this brutal killing machine doesn’t have a long-term future.”
      The Russian Orthodox Church regularly meets with the Russian Foreign Ministry to discuss its agenda outside Russia’s borders, and is seen by most experts as eager to render support to the Kremlin.
      Still, there have been moments when the church’s foreign policy aims appeared distinct. In 2009, just as President Dmitri A. Medvedev publicly blasted his counterpart in Ukraine, Viktor A. Yushchenko, Patriarch Kirill published a note thanking Mr. Yushchenko for his hospitality on a visit, Mr. Zolotov said.
      Tension was also apparent surrounding Patriarch Kirill’s visit to Damascus late last year, which was delayed repeatedly and planned under conditions of high secrecy, Mr. Zolotov said. 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.”         
      An earlier version of this article misidentified President Dimitri A. Medvedev’s counterpart in Ukraine as Viktor F. Yanukovich.
      A version of this article appeared in print on June 1, 2012, on page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: Russian Church Is a Strong Voice Opposing Intervention in Syria.

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