Thursday, August 31, 2017

Religion and Politics: Russian Orthodox Patriarch Helped Syria’s Assad Regime

In the wake of yet another Syrian massacre of civilians, including families being shot at close-range in their own houses, the New York Times published a report in 2012 that claimed that Russian priests and theologians commiserated with diplomats from Damascus at the opening of an exhibition devoted to Syrian Christianity in a cathedral near the Kremlin. While it is understandable that the Kremlin would not want to lose its “longtime partner and last firm foothold in the Middle East,” it is perhaps less palatable for Christian prelates and doctors of the Russian Orthodox Church to essentially look the other way on atrocities so the Syrian Christians, many of whom are Orthodox, won’t be pushed under the bus in a wave of Islamic fundamentalism that could be unleashed should Assad fall from power. The Syrian Christians were reluctant to join the Sunni Muslim opposition to Assad for fear of being persecuted by the Sunnis should they gain power.

 Together, the fear of the Syrian Christians and the “foreign policy” of the Moscow patriarchate were forestalling internal and external forces, respectively, from having achieving enough power to stop the human rights abuses in Syria. This is ironic because Jesus preached selflessness, or self-emptying love for one’s neighbor (agape seu benevolentia universalis). I suspect that the martyrs of the early Church would be shocked to find such self-serving provincialism in the sectarian groups, both in Syria and the Russian capital.

The following observation from Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is telling if not poignant. “What we see now in Syria is systemic failure—it’s brutal, it’s now an insurgency—but in the end its just systemic failure. 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.” I would add that the hitching makes the Christians and their leaders into hypocrites. That is, it contradicts Christian love as preached and lived by Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, compassion when it is least convenient was being thrown under the bus in the service of a sectarian interest.

                                              Clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church             NYT

When Russian Patriarch Kirill visited Damascus in late 2011 after 3,500 Syrians had been killed by government forces and the Arab League had suspended Syria’s membership, he “made a sympathetic appearance with [Assad], praising Syria’s treatment of Christians and making no mention of the mounting death toll,” according to the New York Times. Apparently the death of thousands of people is fine as long as one’s own kind is treated well. The good of a part outweighs the good of the whole. This point applies as well to the related opposition of Putin to efforts at the UN’s Security Council to take measures against the Syrian government. That is to say, Putin’s relationships to the patriarch and to Assad are more important than a higher good, such as stopping the slaughter of hundreds if not thousands of Syrians.

It follows that the vetoes held on the Security Council can and should be questioned because the parts holding them cannot be assumed to have any regard for the “big picture” or the common good at the global level. Even if the violent acts by Assad’s men are consistent with the interests of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, the international system is not served by a government that gets away with violating rather than protecting its citizens’ human rights. 


Ellen Barry, “Russian Church Is a Strong Voice Opposing Intervention in Syria,” The New York Times, June 1, 2012.