ROME – As ISIS surged through Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, Christian towns across the Nineveh valley were looted and gutted, and usually left in ruins. Churches and crosses were defaced and defiled. Extremists pushed out all religious minorities during their occupation of what was once the cradle of western civilization.
Today, Christians are returning to find ghost towns, and have been working together with relief agencies to rebuild their homes. Now, the number two official of the Russian Orthodox Church is calling for deeper collaboration with Catholics to support these suffering Christians of the Middle East.
In a recent interview with the Italian newspaper Sole 24 Ore, Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev said the Russians hope to foster “common projects aimed at supporting the brothers and sisters who live such tragedies.”
Hilarion was speaking on the eve of an historic visit to Russia by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, this week, which features personal meetings with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the spiritual leader of Russian Orthodoxy.
“It represents a great effort for dialogue and peace that characterizes the pontificate of Pope Francis,” Mario Marazziti, president of the committee for social affairs at the Italian House of Representatives and former spokesmen for the community of Sant’Egidio, told Crux in a phone interview.
Speaking to the Italian newspaper, Hilarion said Parolin’s visit is an important step to promote dialogue between the two Churches, and pointed to what he called “significant progress” made in this direction in the past 10 years.
Such collaboration “was possible thanks to the growing understanding of how much the spiritual tradition of the first millennium of Christianity unites us,” Hilarion said in the Aug. 16 interview.
“In these past years, unfortunately, the problem of persecution and discrimination against Christians by extremists in various regions of the world has become more present,” he said.
“It’s a problem that deeply concerns both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Holy See, and that pushes us to unite our forces in search for a solution,” he added.
Parolin’s visit is both secular and religious, bringing him into contact with both spiritual figures and government officials. Very much like the Russian coat of arms, representing a two-headed eagle looking East and West, Parolin will have to carefully address each side individually, while keeping in mind that they are part of the same whole.
Both historically and today, the Russian government and the Russian Orthodox Church are intricately tied to one another, not only at an institutional level but also in Russian culture and society.
It’s a dynamic Pope Francis understands very well. Back in 2013, the pope sided with Putin in fending off an anti-Assad Western offensive in Syria, after news broke that the government had used chemical weapons against its rebelling populace. It was in large part thanks to this that Kirill agreed to meet the pope in Havana, Cuba, in 2016, under the patronage of Putin.
In the Syrian-Iraqi war in the Middle East, one that sees many countries and religious denominations entwined both in conflict and peace efforts, Putin has to be part of the conversation about an exit strategy, according to Marazziti.
“[He’s] an unavoidable protagonist of a dialogue that needs to be built in order to find solutions,” Marazziti said.
A statement that emerged from the Cuban meeting between Francis and Kirill also touched on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, striking a basically neutral tone. That irritated some observers, who regard the conflict as a hostile violation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty by Russia.
“Regarding the situation in Ukraine, the Holy See has adopted a measured position, avoiding unilateral assessments,” Hilarion said on Aug. 16.
“The Vatican invites dialogue and to put an end to military actions between the two parties in conflict, and insists on the respect of the Minsk protocol,” Hilarion said, referring to a cease-fire agreement first signed in 2014.
Another example of how politics and religion often intersect in Russia is reflected in the fact that Parolin’s visit, which runs August 21 to 24, was heralded by the recent arrival of relics of St. Nicholas sent from Italy. Millions of Russian Orthodox faithful, who share a special devotion to the saint, visited the relics – including Putin.
“With this pilgrimage, the faithful gave witness to their living faith, that 70 years of Church persecution could not destroy,” Hilarion said referring to the Soviet period in which religious practices were abolished in keeping with Karl Marx’s famous saying, “Religion is the opium of the people.”
Putin has presented himself as a defender of the faith, emerging as a strong voice against Christian persecution overseas and a firm promoter of traditional moral and religious principles at home. He’s led campaigns against divorce in Russia, which registers some of the highest divorce rates in the world, and isn’t seen as friendly to the LGBTQ community.
In his interview, Hilarion said that among the “most current issues of our time” is a “crisis of spiritual values and the exclusion of religion from the sphere of social life in Western countries,” adding that this too will be among the topics discussed during Parolin’s visit.
The meeting between Parolin and Putin may well have a positive tone, since there are several points on world affairs shared by the two states.
“Russia and the Vatican have similar positions on the issue of fighting extremism in Syria,” Hilarion said, stating that relations between the two have “developed profitably recently.”
Like Russia, Catholic leaders in Syria have taken a more accepting stance toward Assad, viewing him as a lesser evil compared to the menace of Islamic extremists taking control.
Sessions with the Russian Orthodox Church, traditionally skeptical of Rome and the papacy, might prove more difficult for the Vatican’s de facto #2, given past conflicts that still sour relations today.
“In today’s fragmented and centrifugal world,” Marazziti said, “the division among Christian Churches seems to be a luxury” – one, he suggested, Christians can no longer afford “facing the big problems of the world, such as war, migration, and the persecution of entire peoples.”
One issue contributing to fragmentation between East and West long has been the Eastern rite churches within Catholicism, which allow Eastern Christians to maintain their own liturgies and customs while also accepting the authority of the papacy. Those churches are often called “Uniates” by the Russian Orthodox, a term members of those churches generally regard as offensive.
Over the years, some Russian Orthodox theologians and churchmen have accused the Eastern Catholic churches of being a Trojan horse, intended to lure faithful into the Catholic fold. Such tensions have “heavily damaged the relations between Orthodox and Catholics,” Hilarion said, adding that this has been exacerbated by events in Ukraine.
“In the last few years, we’ve heard a large amount of politicized and aggressive declarations from the Uniate leaders, offensive toward the Russian Orthodox Church and its representatives,” he said.
Hilarion lamented what he described as an increase of proselytism and expansion by the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, the largest Eastern Catholic church in the world, in areas traditionally under the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Hilarion thanked Francis for opposing what he described as an effort by Greek Catholics to take over Russian Orthodox churches in southern and eastern parts of Ukraine. Greek Catholics often charge the situation is actually the other way around, that it’s their churches and faithful that have been attacked and intimidated by pro-Russian forces.
Hilarion said that despite it all, “We don’t lose hope of being able to find in the future a solution to these very grave problems.”
Past grievances notwithstanding, Marazziti told Crux that “ecumenical dialogue with Kirill can foreshadow a larger effort of Christian participation toward reconciliation, and not division, in Ukraine.
“Collaboration between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church is indispensable to help Ukrainians of all religions to learn and desire how to pray for peace, not for victory,” he added.
There’s already a basis for that collaboration in past breakthroughs, such as a visit by representatives of both churches to Lebanon and Syria in April 2016, a 2017 Orthodox-Catholic forum in Paris on terrorism and the situation in the Middle East, and a summit in Washington this May on Christian persecution.
“I am convinced that the development of collaboration between Orthodox and Catholics in the areas where our Churches have a common position, or close, will make possible the overcoming of long-standing misconceptions and misunderstanding,” Hilarion said.