Vladimir Putin, Friend of Christians?
Sociologist Peter Berger, observing the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for Russia’s defense of the Assad regime in Syria, notes that Russia is a more reliable defender of the beleaguered Christian minority there than is the West:
Whatever its political motives and consequences, [Russian Orthodox Patriarch] Kirill’s description of the sufferings of Christians in the Middle East, and indeed in other parts of the Muslim world, is factually correct. The Assad government has in fact protected the Christian minority, and Syrian Christians have good reason to fear an overthrow of that government. The rise of anti-Christian militancy following the demise of authoritarian but non-Islamist regimes in Iran and Iraq, and lately in Egypt, very plausibly makes Christians afraid. Christians have recently encountered problems elsewhere (for example, in China and India), but in the great majority of cases at the hands of Muslims. Christians have been brutally persecuted under so-called “blasphemy laws” in Pakistan, Aghanistan and Egypt, and even in semi-democratic Turkey. There has been outright prohibition (Saudi Arabia) and severe restriction (Iran). But there has also been physical violence, usually by enraged mobs, though typically with little interference by the authorities (Indonesia, Pakistan, Iraq, Egypt). Most of the persecution has been directed against Christian communities long established in the region (such as Copts and other so-called Oriental churches – that is, Eastern churches not in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – but also the Melkite churches, which are in communion). Both laws and popular hostility against “proselytism” has led to persecution of Evangelical missionaries. There has been for some time now a simmering civil war between Christians and Muslims in northern Nigeria. I am not suggesting that Islam is intrinsically, inevitably anti-Christian. There are important passages in the Koran that prohibit such hostility, and there is a long history of Christians living peacefully in Islamic states (such as during the convivienca under Muslim rule in Spain). All the same, it is true that, while most Muslims do not persecute Christians, most such persecutions are perpetrated by Muslims – within what Samuel Huntington called “the bloody frontiers of Islam”. Christians, rightly worried about their future, have been emigrating in large numbers from the Middle East, dramatically from Iraq and Egypt, and even from the Palestinian territories. The mayor of Bethlehem recently warned of the possibility that the birthplace of Jesus may in the not too distant future be a city without Christians. Can one imagine the last one to leave turning off the lights in the Church of the Nativity?
Berger didn’t fall off the turnip truck; he knows that there’s a lot more going on here than religious solidarity. Still, it is instructive to reflect on how not only has the putative Christian superpower the United States not been helpful to Arab Christians living in the Middle East, it has been, at least in the case of Iraq, a positive menace to their security. Which brings to mind Berger’s most recent posting, about “the obsolescence of honor”…