On June 1, 2012, The New York Times carried a story by Ellen Barry about the Russian Orthodox Church giving moral support to the Russian policy in the current crisis in Syria. That policy has been marked by persistent vetoes in the Security Council against all attempts to take strong steps against the Syrian regime. This has once again, in the best Cold War tradition, pitted Russia against the United States and its allies. Ever since Vladimir Putin’s first presidency, through the Medvedev intermission and Putin’s return as visible head of the Russian government, the Russian Church has strongly supported his regime, despite (and perhaps) because of its increasing authoritarianism. The 1997 law about religion gave a privileged status to Orthodoxy, though stopping short of directly establishing it as the religion of the state. This cozy relationship between Orthodoxy and state has been most relevant in domestic affairs. It is has also been manifest in foreign affairs. That was already evident in the Russian stance favoring Serbia during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Barry’s story indicates that it also pertains to Russia’s policy in the Middle East.
Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chairman of the department of external church relations (and thus a sort of ecclesiastical foreign minister), has put what he calls “Christianiphobia” at the top of his agenda. In a statement describing and denouncing the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, he called on Putin to protect these threatened minorities. And Putin promised to do this. His effective defense of the Assad regime, indirectly in the United Nations and, according to reports, directly by the shipments of arms, is now legitimated in terms of a defense of persecuted Christians. Late last year Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow and all the Russias paid a visit to Damascus. While the visit was officially described as a non-political gesture of solidarity with the Christian minority, Kirill appeared in public with President Assad and praised him for his treatment of Christians. In a religious procession led by Kirill walking beside him were men holding up Assad’s portrait. In the most solemn way possible, Kirill stepped into the traditional role of Imperial Russia as defender of the Orthodox in the Middle East. Is history repeating itself? My guess is that the answer is yes and no.
Whatever its political motives and consequences, Kirill’s description of the sufferings of Christians in the Middle East, and indeed in other parts of the Muslim world, is factually correct. The Assad government has in fact protected the Christian minority, and Syrian Christians have good reason to fear an overthrow of that government. The rise of anti-Christian militancy following the demise of authoritarian but non-Islamist regimes in Iran and Iraq, and lately in Egypt, very plausibly makes Christians afraid. Christians have recently encountered problems elsewhere (for example, in China and India), but in the great majority of cases at the hands of Muslims. Christians have been brutally persecuted under so-called “blasphemy laws” in Pakistan, Aghanistan and Egypt, and even in semi-democratic Turkey. There has been outright prohibition (Saudi Arabia) and severe restriction (Iran). But there has also been physical violence, usually by enraged mobs, though typically with little interference by the authorities (Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt). Most of the persecution has been directed against Christian communities long established in the region (such as Copts and other so-called Oriental churches – that is, Eastern churches not in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – but also the Melkite churches, which are in communion). Both laws and popular hostility against “proselytism” has led to persecution of Evangelical missionaries. There has been for some time now a simmering civil war between Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria. I am not suggesting that Islam is intrinsically, inevitably anti-Christian. There are important passages in the Koran that prohibit such hostility, and there is a long history of Christians living peacefully in Islamic states (such as during the convivienca under Muslim rule in Spain). All the same, it is true that, while most Muslims do not persecute Christians, most such persecutions are perpetrated by Muslims – within what Samuel Huntington called “the bloody frontiers of Islam”. Christians, rightly worried about their future, have been emigrating in large numbers from the Middle East, dramatically from Iraq and Egypt, and even from the Palestinian territories. The mayor of Bethlehem recently warned of the possibility that the birthplace of Jesus may in the not too distant future be a city without Christians. Can one imagine the last one to leave turning off the lights in the Church of the Nativity?
There is considerable irony in Vladimir Putin, the old KGB official, taking on the role of defender of Christianity. Perhaps he could add to the official title of President of Russia the phrase still attached to Queen Elizabeth II – Defender of the Faith. (Yet another irony: That title was given by the Pope to King Henry VIII, in recognition of a tract he wrote in his earlier years as an attack on Martin Luther. I don’t know if Rome made a move to retract the title after Henry VIII followed Luther’s heresy at least to the extent of putting himself in the place of the Pope as head of the Church of England. One way of looking at history is as an endless sequence of ironies. But that is another story.)
Putin likes to be photographed in the company of Orthodox priests. He claims to have been secretly baptized during Soviet times and to have had some sort of religious conversion. Is he sincere or just using religion as a political tactic? The same question may be raised about Dmitry Medvedev, who kept the presidential chair warm for Putin and who is reputed to have a chapel in his dacha. However one wants to wants to answer the question, there is a long pre-Soviet history of Imperial Russia intervening in the Middle East, sincerely or not, under the banner of protector of Orthodox Christians. An impressive reminder of this is the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, a collection of buildings across about seventeen acres of prime real estate in the center of the city. Built between 1860 and 1864 by the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, it included a large church and a hostel for the use of Russian pilgrims to the Holy Land, of which there were many. The church and one other building are still in use by the Russian Orthodox Church, though some other parts of the complex are now owned by the Israeli government and private firms. For many years in the nineteenth century there was an ongoing conflict between Russia and the Western powers, notably France and the British Empire, over influence in the Middle East. The Ottomans, who then ruled the region, were more afraid of the Russians and consequently looked to the Western powers for protection. While Russia served as the putative protector of Orthodox Christians under Turkish rule, France placed herself as protector of Catholics (especially the Maronites in Lebanon, who used Orthodox rites while acknowledging the authority of the Pope). The British were at least generally sympathetic to Protestants. (There were very few of those, most of them converts, not from Islam but from Orthodoxy – since it was very dangerous to convert Muslims, Protestant missionaries instead went after their Orthodox fellow-Christians. Conscious of this less than inspiring history of non-heroic evangelism, the Church of England, so as not to annoy the Orthodox any further, set up an episcopal see whose incumbent was called, not Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem. I believe he still is.)
If Russia wants again to play an important role in the Middle East, so does Turkey, confident with its new economic muscle. The foreign policy of the Islamist government in power since 2003 increasingly has a neo-Ottoman flavor, stretching out to influence not only the Middle East but ex-Russian Central Asia, most of whose inhabitants speak languages related to Turkish. Critics of Recep Erdogan were worried that he may aspire to be a new Khomeini. His role model, it now seems, may rather be Suleiman the Magnificent. It would be yet another replication of an old history if Turkey, a sort of Western power by virtue of still being a member of NATO, were now to become a major rival with Russia. The two governments are certainly competing in currying favor with the Arabs while antagonizing the Israelis. Of course, the future direction of the Arab Spring may complicate this game in unforeseeable ways.
Since the failure of the Suez intervention in 1956, the United States has done its best to be the successor of the British Empire in the Middle East. Its recent history makes it difficult to play the role of protector of Christians. Two of its recent wars, the ones in Serbia and Kosovo, were fought to protect Muslims against Christians – and Orthodox Christians at that. I don’t think that the US has been getting much credit for this in the Muslim world. And of course its alliance with “Christianiphobic” Saudi Arabia against equally “Christianiphobic” Iran inhibits any possible American inclinations toward “Christianiphilia”, though the closeness with Israel may push it in this direction (Evangelicals are not only staunchly pro-Israel, but, along with the Catholic Church, have shown great concern for the plight of Christians in Muslim countries).
Nobody I know has ever read George Santayana. I haven’t either. But everyone quotes one line by Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. I doubt whether this statement holds as a generalization about historical memory. Maybe, just maybe, it may hold for the Middle East. The past weighs heavily on this part of the world. It may be useful to keep in mind that most collective memories of the past are false. As a Soviet joke, had it: “The only thing that is more uncertain than the future is the past”.