The New York Times recently reported that the Russian Orthodox Church is mirroring the political position of Russian president Vladimir Putin in its approach to the civil war in Syria: taking a hard-line stance in favor of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, whose forces have been responsible for a string of close-quarters massacres of civilian men, women, and children in restive towns.
Three and a half months ago, intent on achieving a commanding win in presidential elections, Vladimir V. Putin sought support from Russia’s religious leaders, pledging tens of millions of dollars to reconstruct places of worship and state financing for religious schools.
But Metropolitan Hilarion of Volkolamsk, chairman of the patriarchate’s department of external church relations, did not ask for money. The issue of “Christianophobia” shot to the top of the church’s agenda a year ago, with a statement warning that “they are killing our brothers and sisters, driving them from their homes, separating them from their near and dear, stripping them of the right to confess their religious beliefs.” The metropolitan asked Mr. Putin to promise to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.
“So it will be,” Mr. Putin said. “There is no doubt at all.”
The Russian Orthodox church is not standing beside Assad and his clan of butchers because they see themselves in an ideological or spiritual concordance with the regime. They are supporting them because they believe that the regime’s continued dominance is the best method to protect the minority Christian community in Syria, who are politically allied with Assad and his minority Alawite sect. It is an endorsement that ostensibly benefits a small segment of the Syrian population at the expense of those other Syrians who are being attacked by Assad’s army as it moves from region to region, conducting a bloody intimidation campaign inside their own borders.
Religion is often misunderstood as reducible to a belief system or set of values. But what this case highlights is the inextricability of religion from the things of this world—the easy translatability of church as spiritual entity into church as communitarian political entity. There is no distinctively Christian character to this move: it is a shrewd calculation designed to protect people who are “like us,” the politics of clan warfare. Moreover, the Orthodox church sees itself as enmeshed in a political-cultural alliance with the Kremlin.
This contradicts the dualistic logic of Islamophobia, which growls that Islam is uniquely “political” while other religions have an unbroken focus on higher things. Rather than the guardians of a transcendent value system, the Russian Orthodox patriarchate is behaving like a street gang, affirming that the lives of its members must be defended no matter how brutal, clumsy, and shortsighted the means.