| 07 June 2012
The Russian Patriarch Kirill I likens the situation of Christians today in the Middle East with the persecution of the Russian Orthodox by the Bolsheviks (AP / Mikhail Metzel)
While the West is trying to pressure the Kremlin to help stop the killing in Syria, diplomats from Damascus were admitted to one of the largest Orthodox churches in Russia. The Syrian diplomats launched a report on Syrian Christianity in a church near the Kremlin and discussed with Russian priests and theologians on the issue that concerned both: what happens if the President of Syria Bashar al-Assad is forced to give up power?
It is known that the Russian government is strongly positioned against a foreign intervention in Syria, a longtime partner and last stronghold of the Middle East. Less known is the position of the Russian Orthodox Church, which is concerned that the Christian minority in Syria, of which many are Orthodox Christians will suffer because of the Islamic fundamentalism wave triggered by the Arab spring.
The Christians, who constitute 10 per cent of the population of Syria, are reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition against Assad. Although the attitude of the Russian Church does not direct the policy of the Kremlin, Patriarch Kirill's concern is another factor which makes it so difficult to reconcile Moscow and the West.
Three and a half months ago, during the campaign of Russian presidential elections, Vladimir Putin promised millions of dollars for the reconstruction of churches and state funding of religious schools. But when the Metropolitan Hilarion, head of international relations of the Russian Church met Putin, Bishop Hilarion did not ask for money, but secured the Russian president's pledge to protect the Christian minorities in the Middle East. "Certainly [we will protect them]", said Putin.
The "Christianophobia" was placed on top of the agenda of the Russian Church a year ago. The Church warns about extremists "killing our brothers and sisters, driving them away from their homes, separating them from their close relatives, denying them the right to profess their faith". The Russian Orthodox Church denounces West's interventions in the Middle East and sees them framed in a mindset of 'Christianophobia'. Especially in Egypt and Iraq, where after the fall of Saddam Hussein the country lost two thirds of its one and a half million Christians.
Western analysts acknowledge the risks faced by the Christians of Syria. Nevertheless they advise that the Russian Church would be wiser to keep distance from the Assad government and to prepare itself for the successor regime.