It’s a well-known Achilles heel of Western foreign policy to undervalue the strategic importance of religion, and perhaps nowhere is that more clear at the moment than in assessments of Russia’s intervention in Syria and Iraq.
Beginning in late September, Russia unleashed a massive bombing campaign against ISIS and Al Qaeda targets. Some pundits believe its perceived success could translate into a boost for Russian influence in the region.
In part, that may explain why the Obama administration announced Friday that a small contingent of American special operations troops, fewer than 50, will move into northern Syria to assist moderate opposition groups in fighting ISIS.
Of course, Americans have been down this road before.
We’ve been shown awesome images of airborne destruction, and we’ve heard military spokesmen touting the dazzling precision of those efforts, only to realize that the reality on the ground was very different. It’s entirely plausible that Putin’s “shock and awe” campaign eventually will seem no more a lasting victory than America’s in Iraq.
While we wait to sort out the military results, what’s often lost in the shuffle is the clear religious subtext to Russia’s operation, and, more broadly, its evolving geopolitical role.
Back in February 2012, Vladimir Putin vowed to the Russian Orthodox Church that the protection of persecuted Christians around the world would be a cornerstone of his foreign policy. After he announced plans last month for anti-ISIS strikes, a spokesman for the Church declared it a “holy fight”.
A growing swath of the Christian minority in the Middle East, who are among the primary targets of ISIS, can’t help but respond with gratitude. Last year, the Global Post website quoted a Syrian Christian woman as summing up the sentiment: “Thank God for Russia!”
Traditionally, there was an informal division of labor among the great powers in terms of providing cover for the Christian communities of the Middle East. Russia billed itself as the patron of the Orthodox, France for the Catholics, and Great Britain for the Protestants.
Today, it’s increasingly common among the Christians of the Middle East, and their sympathizers around the world, to say that only Russia seems to be taking its responsibility seriously.
Journalist Melik Kaylan summed up the situation aptly in a May essay for Forbes.
“Putin and Assad have maneuvered to become the explicit protectors of Eastern Christianity,” he wrote. “As the U.S. and Europe are too tangled up in ideological confusion and contradictory goals to step into the breach, we furnish Moscow with easy triumphs in this area as in so many others.”
Allowing Putin to package himself as the best friend of Christians under fire has clear strategic consequences that are hardly limited to the Middle East.
There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world today, which is one-third of the entire global population. Two-thirds of those Christians live outside the West, a share that’s expected to reach three-quarters by mid-century.
In the developing world, Christians form majorities in the Americas and their numbers are growing dramatically in Africa and parts of Asia. Persecution is widespread; the low-end estimate is that one Christian is killed for religious motives every hour of every day. Naturally, those at-risk Christians are inclined to take help wherever they can get it.
But let’s be clear: Vladimir Putin may be many things, but a 21st-century version of Constantine or Charlemagne he’s not. There’s every reason to suspect his pledge to defend Christians is based far more on Russia’s perceived interests, and his own, than a sincere desire to foster the faith.
Christians in Ukraine currently putting their lives on the line to defend their independence against what they view as Russian aggression, for instance, would have a hard time taking Putin seriously as an exponent of the Gospel.
Christians in Iraq and Syria are smart enough to sniff that out, too. They know that Putin’s client in Syria, Assad, is no choir boy. But that doesn’t stop them from preferring a global power that intervenes on their behalf, no matter its motives, to those that can’t or won’t.
That was the gist of the reaction from Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart of Aleppo, who leads the Syria’s Greek Melkite Catholic community, on Oct. 9.
Jeanbart told Swiss television that Russia’s intervention is a “source of hope,” and said that it “serves the Christians’ cause,” even if Moscow is only pursuing its own aims.
The correct Western response to Russia’s muscle-flexing almost certainly is not to launch its own unilateral offensive, but rather to work in concert with local authorities and international partners.
As Patriarch Louis Sako of the Chaldean Catholic Church in Iraq warned in a recent Crux interview, another Western assault in the Middle East, or the perception that one is likely, would inflame Muslim opinion and make the situation more perilous. (Sako wants a stepped-up American commitment in Iraq, but as part of an international coalition.)
Still, if the West doesn’t find a way to convince Christians that Russia isn’t their only option when the chips are down, it risks handing Putin a new strategic selling point — and one with growing global relevance.
* * * * *
The Vatican braces for new blockbusters on money scandals
On Nov. 10, Pope Francis is scheduled to make a day trip to Florence to speak at a national convention of the Italian Catholic Church, to meet with both workers and the sick, and to celebrate a Mass in a communal stadium. He’s scheduled to leave for Florence by helicopter at 7 a.m., returning to the Vatican the same evening.
Depending on what happens in Rome before he takes off, the pontiff may be sorely tempted to extend his trip.
Next week, two new books touted as blockbusters are scheduled to hit Italian bookshelves, both focused on money scandals in the Vatican and the Catholic Church. Both seem destined to raise questions about the success of Francis’ much-vaunted financial clean-up operation.
First up is “Avarice: The Papers that Reveal Wealth, Scandals and Secrets in the Church of Francis” by Italian journalist Emiliano Fittipaldi, which comes out Nov. 5. Fittipaldi writes for the newsmagazine L’Espresso.
Hard on his heels comes Gianluigi Nuzzi, the Italian journalist at the heart of the Vatileaks affair under Benedict XVI three years ago, who releases his new volume, “Via Crucis.”
Once again promising a rich harvest of leaked Vatican documents and recordings, the book will appear simultaneously in English, published by Henry Holt, under the title “Merchants in the Temple: Inside Pope Francis’ Battle Against Corruption in the Vatican.”
In both cases, publicists are doing everything they can to whip up buzz.
Fittipaldi’s publisher, Feltrinelli, says he “has collected a great quantity of internal Vatican documents — minutes of meetings, balance sheets, and reports — from confidential sources, and is today in a position to sketch the first map of the Church’s financial empire.”
Roughly 20 pages of the book are said to be made up of photocopies of secret Vatican documents never before released.
The Church’s empire, the publisher’s PR materials say, runs from “basically innocent luxuries conceded to cardinals to million-dollar frauds, from fabulous investments around the entire world to gigantic affairs involving hospitals, from plots of the Vatican bank to the real dimensions of the pope’s treasure.”
For Nuzzi, here’s how his publicity materials describe the landscape he presents:
“A negative situation never before seen on such a scale, revealed here, finally makes it understandable why Benedict XVI resigned,” the materials claim.
“It’s a true war,” Nuzzi’s ad copy reads, “reconstructed here in a mystery story destined to become an international political case. What’s in play is the future of the Church and its credibility in the world.”
It’s certainly plausible that both books will be chock full of genuine leaks. For one thing, that’s just how Rome works; as the saying goes, it’s a city in which everything is a mystery, but nothing is secret.
Moreover, there have been other recent hints pointing to financial documents making the rounds. On Friday, Italian news outlets reported that the Vatican’s gendarmes have opened an internal investigation related to unauthorized access of a computer belonging to the new auditor general, Libero Milone, appointed by Francis in June.
Before the storm breaks, here are three points about what to expect:
1. It will take time to sort out how much of the material is genuinely new.
Fittipaldi’s reference to “affairs involving hospitals,” for instance, could point to a scandal that broke out last year when investigators in Italy suspected senior Vatican officials had siphoned off 30 million Euro in public funds intended for Rome’s famed pediatric hospital Bambino Gesù and used the money to bail out another Church-sponsored clinic, the Istituto Dermopatico dell’Immacolata, which had been on the verge of bankruptcy.
That maneuver allegedly was engineered by Cardinal Giuseppe Versaldi, at the time the head of the Vatican’s Prefecture for Economic Affairs, and today prefect of the Congregation for Catholic Education. Versaldi was caught on tape telling an Italian businessman not to reveal the transfer of 30 million during an audience with Pope Francis in February 2014.
In June 2015, Versaldi released a statement via Vatican Radio saying that the transfer was merely a “hypothesis” that never happened. Instead, he said, the Vatican’s Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See (APSA) ended up lending the clinic 50 million Euro, all approved by the pope in another audience, thereby saving 1,334 jobs.
Whatever one makes of the affair, its basic contours are already familiar, and thus it wouldn’t really qualify as a “scoop” — unless, of course, new details emerge that change our understanding of what really happened.
2. The books likely will reignite discussion about the success of the pope’s financial reform operation. That includes the key figure in that effort: Australian Cardinal George Pell, who heads a newly created Secretariat for the Economy.
Pell has drawn mixed reactions since he arrived in the Vatican in February 2014, with much of the stiffest criticism coming from Italians, both inside and outside the Vatican, who charge that he’s running roughshod over time-honored ways of doing business and, despite pledges of transparency, operating largely in the dark.
(As an amusing footnote, it seems the only time Italian Vatican-watchers take a break from beating up on their own clergy is when they decide to defend them against Pell.)
If these books cast Pell in a negative light, some observers may wonder if it will force Francis to consider making a change. To date, the pope’s record would suggest it will take an awful lot to convince him to backtrack.
In 2013, when his choice as delegate to the Vatican bank, Monsignor Gian Battista Ricca, was under fire for alleged gay affairs as a Vatican diplomat more than a decade earlier, Francis stood by him. Likewise, when his pick as the bishop of a small diocese in Chile, Juan de la Cruz Barros, ignited national controversy earlier this year based on charges that he had covered up abuse charges against a notorious abuser priest, Francis refused to budge.
In general, Francis appears reluctant to rethink his personnel decisions, perhaps fearing that if he sends a signal that character assassination can succeed, it will never end. Next week may bring another test of how absolute that position truly is.
3. Expect the authors of these bombshells to cast them not as an attack on Pope Francis, but attempts to come to his rescue.
A standard rhetorical convention of Italian journalism, whenever a scandal or internal embarrassment in the Vatican is involved, is to claim the moral high ground by presenting the revelations as a service to the pontiff.
That was how Nuzzi packaged his original Vatileaks disclosures, insisting that he believed in Pope Benedict’s desire to “purify” the Church, and wanted to help him out by exposing how thoroughly he had been betrayed by the people around him.
With Francis and his celebrated vision of a “poor church for the poor,” that sort of rhetoric is even more tempting. The general drift likely will be, “Francis has his heart in the right place, so he needs to know what’s really going on.”
That’s one of the truly charming features of Italian life: Even muckraking journalists feel compelled to exude pious intentions. Expect a fair bit of such talk in the days to come.