Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Is Russia's Syria Intervention a 'Holy War'? Russian Orthodox Church: 'Yes'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Is Russia's Syria Intervention a 'Holy War'? Russian Orthodox Church: 'Yes'

Article excerpt

For many in the West, the idea that a church would take an overtly hawkish stance in the conflict in Syria is an utterly foreign concept.

But then, the Russian Orthodox Church is not of the West, says Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the church's most recognizable spokesperson, in his spartan downtown Moscow office.

"The idea that church and state should be alienated from each other is not a characteristic of Orthodox civilization," insists the wispy-bearded senior cleric, whose eyes almost seem to burn. "It's a characteristic of the West."

Not well known or understood in the West, the Russian Orthodox Church has been Russia's chief source of spiritual identity for most of its 1,000-year existence. Though it was nearly destroyed by the communists, it has since rebounded sharply to become once again the Kremlin's ideological bulwark.

As that relationship has solidified, the church has also integrated with the military. Russian media frequently run photos of priests blessing weaponry, including war planes, while Orthodox chaplains are embedded in most military units. And now, it is underscoring its enthusiastic backing for Russia's military intervention in Syria - a fight Father Chaplin dramatically describes as "a holy war against terrorism."

"Russia has been attacked [by terrorists] many times," says Chaplain. "This is not a religious war, not a Christian-Muslim conflict, but for us, the struggle against terrorism definitely has a spiritual dimension."

The 'Third Rome'The Orthodox Church, which has deep historical connections with the dwindling Christian communities of the Middle East, was deeply alarmed by mass flight of Iraq's Christians following the US invasion of that country. When the conflict in Syria began almost five years ago, the church began lobbying the Kremlin to take a strong stand in defense of Syrian Christians, who are about 10 percent of the population. Experts say the church's insistence certainly played a role in President Vladimir Putin's decision to intervene directly in the conflict.

Christianity came to Russia via Byzantium, the eastern half of the old Roman Empire, which survived until the Muslim Turks overran it almost 600 years ago. The Russian Orthodox Church subsequently took up the mantle of eastern Christianity, and Moscow styled itself as the "Third Rome" with a special duty to protect the faithful of the Middle East, now living under Muslim rule. An 1853 proclamation by Czar Nicholas I claiming Russia's right to support Christians living in the Turkish Ottoman empire - which then included Syria and the Holy Land - actually precipitated the Crimean War, which pitted Russia against Turkey, Britain, and France.

"Russian czars and church for centuries maintained close relations with Middle Eastern Christians, and declared the right to support them. That's part of our historical consciousness," says Iosif Diskin, chair of the inter-religious affairs commission of the Russian Public Chamber, a semi-official civil society assembly. "But today it's not just the church, but much of Russian society that has become agitated about the fate of Christian minorities in Syria."

It's difficult to gauge how much the church's vocal support accounts for the public's backing of the war. But polls show that nearly two months into the Russian intervention, more than half still back the air war, though more than two-thirds say they would oppose sending in Russian ground troops.

"The level of trust in the church is very high," says Grigory Kertman, an expert with the state-linked Public Opinion Foundation. …

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