Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the Easter service in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow, Russia, early Sunday, April 16, 2017. (Credit: Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP.)
ROME – As the leadership role of the United States in the Middle East falters, Russia has reiterated its commitment to bringing peace and stability to the region — and safeguarding its Christian communities and heritage.
At the third Mediterranean Dialogues (MED) summit in Rome on Dec. 1-2, policy makers and experts from all over the world met to discuss the leading issues in the Mediterranean: Mainly migration, terrorism and development.
Speaking at the conference, Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister of the Russian Federation, presented the Kremlin’s plan for the Middle East and its special focus on protecting religious minorities.
“It’s peace. It’s stability. It’s conditions for development. It’s openness to the outside world,” the veteran Russian diplomat said about his country’s goals for the region. “It’s also keeping the centuries-long tradition of ethnic and confessional groups of different natures living together.
“The future of Christians in the Middle East is very important.”
Lavrov pointed to the Christian minorities in the area as “the group that’s suffered the most,” because of the violent and destructive attacks by terrorist militias and the diaspora that followed, which risks completely eliminating the Christian presence in the region.
The current administration in the U.S. has been struggling with marrying its ‘America First’ economic nationalism with its intention of aiding religious minorities and stabilizing the Middle East.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal, which includes considerable cuts to foreign aid, was met with concern by those who would like to see stronger American support for the Christian population in Syria and Iraq.
Most of U.S. humanitarian aid in the region, about $1 billion, is currently funneled through the United Nations, but on-the-ground organizations have voiced ‘frustration’ over the reconstruction process in the Nineveh Valley, the ‘cradle of Christianity’ in Iraq that was largely torn down during the ISIS occupation in 2015.
“We simply don’t see [the reconstruction] on the ground in any meaningful way,” said Steve Rasche, the legal counsel and director of IDP resettlement programs for the Chaldean Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, Iraq in an October interview with Crux. He also pointed to a “disconnect” between the people on the ground in Iraq and the organizations paying for the reconstruction.
Partly as a response to the lack of intervention by the international community, the three major Christian churches of Iraq – the Chaldean Catholics, Syrian Catholics, and Syrian Orthodox – have formed the Nineveh Reconstruction Committee to work together in unity to preserve their respective Churches.
This network, supported by Aid to the Church in Need and the Knights of Columbus, has had a leading role in promoting the restoration of the area and advocating the importance of maintaining a Christian presence in the Middle East.
(The Knights of Columbus is a principal sponsor of Crux.)
In late October, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence promised that “help is on the way” for Christians suffering in the Middle East, and that he will be visiting persecuted minorities in the region in December.
Speaking at a conference promoting the defense of Christians, Pence pledged that the money the U.S. currently gives to the UN would be redirected to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which would in turn distribute it to the Catholic NGOs that are active in the region.
It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will be able to follow through on its promises. Uncertainty regarding relations with Iran, Trump’s intention to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the current tensions regarding whether or not Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be asked to step down represent major question marks for the future of the Middle East and its Christian communities.
Meanwhile, reports show that fewer than 100,000 Christians remain in the Nineveh Valley, who in the event of another conflict, “won’t wait around to see this movie one more time,” Rasche said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has not hesitated in taking advantage of the leadership vacuum left by the U.S. in the Middle East.
During a speech to the Bishops’ Council in Moscow Dec. 1 he stated that in a world that is “changing rapidly and living through a very difficult period,” now more than ever “people set their eyes on Russia as a benchmark of unshakable traditional values and sound human existence.”
Putin also hoped that the Russian Orthodox Church would become a prominent advocate for the reconstruction in postwar Syria.
“I do hope that the Russian Orthodox Church, with reliance on its authority in the world, will be able to promote concerted action by the international community for the sake of Syria’s revival, for providing humanitarian assistance to its citizens and for restoring its ruined cultural and spiritual centers,” he said.
“We are not trying to lead for the sake of being considered the leader,” said Lavrov at the Rome conference, referring to Russia’s international commitment. “If we allow Syria to fall apart, as some outside players I believe wouldn’t mind, then it would reverberate all over the region in a very bad way.”
In a nutshell, the Russian leadership has recognized the crucial role of Syria in ensuring a positive and fruitful future for the Middle East, as well as acknowledged the fundamental role of the Christian communities in the area.
In a Dec. 1 interview with Crux, Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda, who was installed as the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Erbil in 2010, lamented the fact that many Americans fail to recognize the significant role Christians have had in the cultural and historical fabric in the Middle East.
“Remember that the Christians in the Middle East and the area in Syria, for example, are the ones who baptized Saint Paul,” said Warda. “If we leave all of these lands…then probably we will lose one important and vital community, which has really played an important part in the region there.”
The crucial role of Christians in the Middle East was recognized in the 2017 MED report, which highlighted the positive impact of religious minorities in promoting dialogue.
“Religious communities have been producing in their midst a political discourse that contradicts the main trends at play at the community, national and regional levels,” wrote Georges Fahmi, Research Fellow at the European Research Institute.
“If these alternative voices manage to break the isolation in which they live and establish channels of outreach, dialogue with legitimate voices within their own communities, and common action with other constituencies within their societies, they could increase their influence and play a positive role in future political developments.”
Fahmi pointed to the Christian communities in Syria and Egypt, especially young people, as an important voice in opposing the authoritarian regimes in power and highlighted the impact of Christian activists both inside and outside the Middle East in delivering humanitarian aid and reporting human rights violations.
Now, as the international community seems to hesitate in taking a leading role in the Middle East, and Russia steps in, it remains to be seen how this will influence the role of the Christian community in the region.