Interactions between politics and religion began with the birth of politics. For centuries, this relationship continued to undergo metamorphoses, especially, at times, when either sphere attempted to dominate the other.
From the onset, religion has always been used as a tool by politicians to hold on to power. Out of the two means used to retain power, i.e. physical coercion or manipulation, the latter is beginning to play an increasingly significant role. And aside from social concepts meant to influence people’s conscience so that they support one political regime or another, there has been an increased focus on the importance of religion recently.
“Today the world sees unscrupulous politicians who tend to use religion as an instrument for manipulation of public conscience. The use of religion-linked rhetoric to justify terrorism or attain one’s political goals is a sin which must be resolutely condemned by spiritual leaders and all people of good will,” says the message sent by the Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and all of Russia to participants of the multi-faith Human Fraternity Meeting, held in the United Arab Emirates in February. Patriarch Kirill noted that the Middle East had seen “all forms of extremists, hiding behind religious slogans”, and it had also suffered from conflicts of geopolitical interests of various countries. The Patriarch emphasized that people of different religions were “called to help the suffering people of Syria, Iraq, and other war-torn countries by demonstrating a firm commitment to God-given moral ideas of love, peace, good neighborly relations and mercy.”
During the session on Russia’s policy in the Middle East at the Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club (in Sochi on 2 October 2019), the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov said that persecution of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East and North Africa was a topic that had been talked about for many years at Russia’s initiative since the very beginning of the “Arab Spring”. The minister added that it was clear they were among the most affected by these upheavals, and that Russia organized events annually in support of Christians and other (which is important to highlight) minorities on the sidelines of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions. Unfortunately, religion is closely and destructively intertwined with modern politics. According to Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, at times when there is more and more suffering and hardships, individuals are, quite naturally, drawn to something spiritual, as they want to feel hope. And, undoubtedly, religion provides an outlet for this, as well as respite and hope for oneself and one’s friends and relatives. According to Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Orthodox Church along with its Sister Churches, the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church aim to fulfill this role quite actively. Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs added that this close collaboration was aimed at channeling religious beliefs to resolve conflicts and reach a consensus.
Hence, in such a climate, it is certainly understandable why the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and the Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán met with heads of Christian churches from the Middle East in Budapest on 30 October (the meeting was facilitated by the Hungarian side). During the event, Viktor Orbán noted that, in the context of the fairly complex events taking place in the Middle East today, it was quite crucial for politicians to get answers from religious officials from this region via face-to-face discussions to such important questions as what actually needed to be done in this part of the world and what needs there required fulfilling.
In turn, the Russian President stressed that he had personally met with some representatives of Middle Eastern religious communities in order to discuss means by which Russia could take the most effective measures to ensure peace and stability in the Middle East. He also reminded the participants that the Russian Federation had done a lot to combat evil forces, such as terrorism in regions as, for instance, the Middle East and Syria, and to fight the terrorist organization Daesh (banned in Russia). Vladimir Putin also added “Everyone knows that the Middle East is the cradle of Christianity. But today, Christians in the Middle East are in distress, in the very literal sense of the word: they are being persecuted, killed, raped, and robbed… And since it is now the most persecuted religion there, we take it that we are obliged to support them.”
The American magazine National Review had previously noted that attacks on Christians in the Middle East were not a very popular topic for Western media outlets to cover. And violence against Christians has increased in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, and in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s regime was toppled with support from the United States. The magazine has effectively opened its readers’ eyes to the fact that the killing of numerous Christians is not covered by the U.S. news outlets. U.S. newspapers are considerably more keen on publishing paid-for content about “persecuted Ukrainians” in the Crimea.
According to the Egyptian media outlet NoonPost, it is not easy for Christians to live in the Persian Gulf region, as they fear losing jobs, church services are performed in secret, and the ringing of bells has been banned.
“The situation is especially difficult in regions engulfed by war. Islamic extremists have purposefully destroyed monuments, libraries and art in Iraq and Syria. The destruction was further exacerbated by armed fighting and gun battles. There is sufficient political will to protect the enormous Christian populations of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon but resources are lacking. And in Turkey, there is a tendency to not provide sufficient protection to its Christian heritage so that it gradually disappears” report French media outlets.
According to France’s news sources, Syrian Christians paid a hefty price as, for the most part, they became casualties of a war that had little to do with them.
“The Middle East is the cradle of Christianity,” the Danish newspaper Berlingske writes. “And Christians have been living there for almost 2,000 years. Unfortunately, they have been driven into a corner in this region. And over the past 15 years, the number of Christians in Iraq has decreased from over 1 million to approximately 250,000. When the Islamic State (editor’s note: an organization banned in the Russian Federation) captured Mosul, approximately 100,000 Christians were forced to flee the city. Those who did not were either forcefully converted to Islam or killed. For the first time in 2,000 years, there are no Christians living in Mosul today.”
We have only covered some of the reports on the sad state of Christianity and Christians themselves in the midst of armed conflict in the Middle East today. All of this serves to affirm the timeliness and importance of the recently held meeting between Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán, and religious officials from the region.
It is important not to forget that the Christian community has always been a link between the Arab-Muslim and the Western civilizations, and has created a space for dialogue between them. It has always kept radicals in check. The Middle East without a Christian population will become more susceptible to all kinds of extremist movements, and will turn into a threat for all the surrounding regions, including Europe, and the rest of the world.
Vladimir Odintsov, expert politologist, exclusively for the online magazine ‘New Eastern Outlook’.