Two stories within two days in The New York Times made me reflect about varieties of tyranny and their relation to religion. On September 6, 2014, a story by Samuel Freedman reported about the reaction of Iraqi Christians in this country to the Islamist genocide of their coreligionists. On September 8, 2014, Andrew Higgins dealt with the support given by the Russian Orthodox Church to the rebels in the eastern part of Ukraine. An important point: I am not suggesting any kind of moral equivalence between the events in Iraq and Ukraine. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled “Caliph” of the Islamic State (IS) straddling the border between Iraq and Syria, is presiding over a campaign against Christians and other religious groups characterized by unspeakable cruelty. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a brutal assault on international order with no respect for human lives (among other things, that Malaysian passenger plane was probably shot down by the rebels under his protection); but is an exercise of ordinary thuggery rather than a genocidal project. Morally speaking, al-Baghdadi is to Putin as Hitler is to Al Capone. Both, however, commit their crimes under religious banners.The Islamist insurgents in Iraq and Syria are very open in their intention to eradicate physically every religious group other than Sunni Muslims in the territory under their control—Shiites, Christians (who under Islamic law should be protected as People of the Book), Yezidis (an offshoot of Zoroastrianism, which traditionally was also accorded protected status). The persecution of these groups included massacres of unarmed civilians, women and children also in violation of sharia rules of warfare, I have no doubt that the IS warriors would massacre Jews as well, if they could find any. Of course even Sunnis must fear for their lives unless they accept the authority of the new “Caliphate”.In a recent post I have discussed at length the horrors perpetrated in different countries in the misused name of Islam. I do not want to prolong this list here. I also do not want to discuss here the impact on public opinion of the horrendous videotaped murders Western hostages. (The appeal of Steven Sotloff’s mother to the non-existing compassion of the “Caliph” is one of the most heartrending scenes I have ever seen on television). I just want to comment on two other aspects of Islamist terror that I had not noted previously.1. Boko Haram (the insurgency in northern Nigeria) first made sexual slavery a part of jihad when they began to abduct Christian schoolgirls and threatened them with this fate. (Incidentally, they have now announced their intention of setting up a “Caliph” of their own—African viceroy or rival of al-Baghdadi?) Mass rape now appears to be routine procedure in the IS. Captured Yezidi women are being kept as sex slaves. At first the women’s cell phones were taken from them; now they left at least one woman with her phone—so that she could tell her family what is being done to her. This act of extreme cruelty has not, as yet, been videotaped. According to reports, the videos of executions inspire young men in Europe to become holy warriors. Perhaps videos of rape may be even more useful in recruiting psychopaths to the IS (sex slaves here and now may be more attractive than virgins in paradise…).2. Reports of executions keep referring to “beheadings”. I’m not sure that this is the correct word for all executions in the Islamic State. Beheading is the favorite method of execution in Saudi Arabia: The victim kneels, is poked to induce him to raise his head, which (if the executioner is competent) is then cut off in one swift stroke of the sword. Perhaps IS practices different types of execution. But pictures of some of the IS murderers show them holding a rather short knife, which suggests that they kill by slitting the throat. If that suggestion is correct, what is done here is the method prescribed by Islamic law for the slaughter of animals (dhabiha). This means that the victim is deprived not only of his life but of his humanity. He is made to die like an animal. The rules for dhabiha prescribe that the animal should suffer as little as possible, and that during the act of killing the words “bismillah”/”in the name of Allah” be pronounced. Every chapter of the Quran begins with this phrase, immediately followed by the description of Allah as “al-rahman, al-rahim”/”the compassionate one, who causes compassion”. Is the full Quranic formula used in the slaughter of infidels in Iraq? Or only the “bismillah”? Or is the blasphemy avoided by performing the atrocity in silence?The story in the Times describes a service, in a suburb of Detroit, in a Chaldean Catholic church. This denomination derives from one of the most ancient Christian churches, originally called the Assyrian Church of the East, supposedly founded by the Apostle Thomas (the one who doubted) on his way to India. After it was decimated by the Mongol invasion the Chaldean community sought help from the European powers and became affiliated with Rome in the sixteenth century. It had to make some theological concessions (the Church of the East was originally Nestorian), but was allowed by the Pope to keep its form of worship (the liturgical language is still Syriac, a later version of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus and his first disciples). The Detroit area has attracted many Chaldeans and now contains about 175,000. The service was conducted by Bishop Francis Kalabat, one of two Chaldean bishops in the United States. (They are appointed by the Pope.) A while ago Bishop Kalabat wrote a public letter about the campaign to exterminate the Chaldeans in Iraq: “We wish to scream, but there are no ears that wish to hear”. He described the situation as “slow-motion genocide”. Not so “slow- motion”: After the Islamists occupied Mosul, the Chaldean center in Iraq, they went from house to house and painted the letter “N” on those inhabited by Christians (the Arabic word for Christians is “Nazarenes”. Those so designated have the choice of conversion or death. Most Christians fled while they could. There are now an estimated one million Chaldean refugees.The second Times story was filed from Slovyansk, a town in eastern Ukraine that had been under the control of pro-Russian rebels for three months before being retaken by the Ukrainian army. The rebels set up a regime of terror, which included murders, arbitrary arrests, torture and disappearnces. Anyone suspected of Ukrainian nationalism was publicly humiliated by angry mobs. A middle-aged woman, deemed to be anti-Russian was accused of serving as a spotter directing Ukrainian artillery. She was tied to a tree in a public street , for several hours, with a sign around her neck saying “This woman is killing our children”. She was guarded by armed rebels who encouraged passing pedestrians to shout insults, to spit upon and beat her. She managed to escape to the Ukrainian lines. [In a comparative perspective she may consider herself lucky: Several individuals accused of being spotters for the Israeli military in Gaza were publicly executed by Hamas.]The focus of the story is the enthusiastic support of the rebels by the Russian Orthodox Church. Its priests blessed the rebels as they marched out to battle. The premises of an Orthodox church in the center of town were used to store ammunition. Most important, the ROC provided the legitimation for this and other exercises of the Putin regime to re-establish the Russian empire—the restoration on what is now in Ukrainian territory of “Holy Rus”, the first Russian state with had Kiev as its capital and which adopted Orthodoxy as its official religion. During their reign in Slovyansk the rebels enforced ther hegemony of the ROC even more rigorously than has (thus far) been done in Russia itself. After the collapse of the Soviet Union a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from the Moscow Patriarchate was established in Kiev in 1992. Patriarch Filaret of Kiev, who has been excommunicated by the ROC, has denounced the actions of the Putin government against Ukraine. In turn Patriarch Kiril of Moscow, who has endorsed every one of Putin’s domestic and foreign policies, has accused the Ukrainian army of carrying on “a religious war… intended to overthrow the canonical Orthodox Church”. (The term “canonical” refers to the doctrine that there can be only one legitimate Orthodox Church in a country. The doctrine has been luxuriously ignored in practice by Orthodoxy in America.) While they held sway in Slovyansk the pro-Russian rebels aggressively repressed two religious groups–those Orthodox who refused allegiance to the Moscow Patriarch, and the burgeoning community of Evangelical Protestants. The rebels confiscated a large Protestant church, evicted the pastor and the congregation, placed icons all over, and began celebrating the Orthodox liturgy. The pastor had death threats, but was not physically harmed; but he reported that some Protestants were kidnapped from another congregation and subsequently killedThe post-Soviet religious situation in Russia has been very different from that in Ukraine. Although (as yet) the ROC has not been officially established by the state, the religion law of 1997 has given it a privileged position. Since then the ties between the Kremlin and the Moscow Patriarchate have become ever closer, following the traditional idea of sinfonia—the two, literally, singing from the same page of the hymnal. This development has intensified under Putin, who likes to be seen with Orthodox priests in full regalia and devoutly crosses himself when attending the liturgy. Putin began his political career in the KGB (the secret police of the Soviet state that, under different names all the way back to Lenin’s Cheka, was in charge of the entire apparatus of domestic and international terror). For a while he headed the KGB station in Dresden, in what was then the German Democratic Republic. (I wonder whether some investigative journalist has tried to find out just what he did there.) The old KGB agent claims to have had some kind of conversion experience. [My teenage grandson would here scribble in the margin “LOL”/”laughing out loud”.] But the question whether Putin’s ostentatious display of piety is genuine or cynical is politically irrelevant: Russian nationalism is the only available legitimation of Putin’s regime, and that nationalism has always been linked to the Orthodox faith.Two targets of both the Kremlin and the Patriarchate have been Uniats (Orthodox who have accepted the authority of Rome) and Evangelical Protestants—both, in the words of a high official of the Patriarchate, “intent on stealing Russian souls”. By contrast, post-Soviet Ukraine has developed into a highly pluralistic society. There are not just two but three Orthodox churches—the ones with allegiance to Kiev or Moscow, and one that describes itself as “autocephalous”, which means that it only accepts the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, bypassing both Kiev and Moscow. There is a strong Uniat or Greek Catholic Church, especially in western Ukraine. Evangelical Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal version, has grown strongly. There is a very large Pentecostal mega-church in Kiev. Then, curiously, there are people who call themselves “Messianic Jews” and who believe that one can be a Christian while also being an observant Jew. According to a recent study, only a few of them were Jews to begin with, but most were Gentiles who believed the Biblical promise of blessing for those who bless the people of Israel. Ukrainian Gentiles who want to be Jews are a curiosity indeed. [Joke: What is a Ukrainian philo-Semite? An anti-Semite who likes Jews.] The Ukrainian state has presided benevolently over this pluralist cacophony, without identifying with any one religious community.Again, there is no moral equivalence between the Islamic State and Putin’s Russia. The first is a genocidal totalitarianism, the second is brutally authoritarian but not genocidal. But what do the two have in common? Both want to carve out new or enlarged states across internationally recognized borders. Both threaten international stability. Both are anti-democratic, anti-Western, ipso facto anti-American. They are discussed on this blog because both are legitimated in religious terms – one by a radical version of Salafist Islam, the other by an idealized image of Orthodox faith linked to the depths of the alleged Russian soul. Interestingly, both reject the sexual liberality of the contemporary West as evidence of cultural degeneracy. A venomous hostility to homosexuality is a salient feature of both.
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There is no moral equivalence between the Islamic State and Putin’s Russia—the first is a genocidal totalitarianism while the second is brutally authoritarian, but not genocidal. But both want to carve out new or enlarged states across internationally recognized borders, both threaten international stability, and both ultimately legitimate themselves in religious terms.