Rebuilding the Middle East: Christians, Shi’ites, and Secularists Join Forces

Luca Baggio/Monte Grappa, Italy

On February 1, 2019, a massive gathering took place in Moscow, just outside the Kremlin. Representatives from China, Japan, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Slovakia, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine, and the Czech Republic, among others, were in attendance. The Patriarch of Moscow was celebrating the 10th anniversary of his enthronement.

Presiding at the liturgy alongside Patriarch Kirill was John X (Yazigi), Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, whose See is in Damascus and who presides, with the four rival patriarchs, over a dwindling population of Christians in the war-torn nation of Syria. After the liturgy, he offered a congratulatory address and a new crozier made in Damascus to Kirill—an important symbol of authority in the church. It was a less-than-subtle acknowledgement of Kirill’s rectitude as a leader.

At first glance, the matter seems of little interest beyond the pale of religious politics. In fact, it speaks volumes on the situation the region finds itself in. Western media has a particularly bad track record when it comes to understanding how such communal nuances have shaped both the Middle East’s upheavals and its rebuilding, which is unsurprising given that reporters often lack basic religious literacy. Western norms include an expectation that the state doesn’t concern itself with religious matters, a notion that civic identity trumps communal ties, and a boundary which restricts religious institutions to the private sphere. In that world, a gesture between clerics in a city thousands of miles from Damascus is irrelevant. But Kirill and John X are not operating in such a world.

Many vectors of identity and power intersect in the Christians of the Middle East. They hold citizenships in particular states. At the same time, their communities cross these borders and have ties to global diasporas. But their immediate neighbors are often members of entirely different communities, and so any kind of productive relationship depends on finding common interests—else these communities descend into violence. Further, they enjoy historic relationships with countries such as Russia which are based on a common religious identity. As a community, the Middle East’s Christians have been at the epicenter of action for the past decade’s upheavals. To understand what’s going on in the Middle East is to delve deeply into obscure religious politics and the creation of unlikely coalitions.

The pairing in Moscow was overshadowed by a larger drama playing out in the Orthodox Christian world: the cutting of ties between the Russian Orthodox Church and the ancient See of Constantinople. In October 2018, Moscow severed its ecclesial communion with Constantinople after the latter acceded to the creation of a new Orthodox body in Ukraine, which Moscow perceived as interference. Constantinople is an ancient bishopric considered “first among equals” in honor, while the Russian church is the largest in the Orthodox world, arguably making this a split between the two most politically important centers of global Orthodoxy.

Historically speaking, Antioch holds a superior place of honor to Moscow in the Orthodox church’s order of bishops. But if this gathering in February indicates anything, it is the willingness of this senior patriarch to recognize the reality that Russia’s church exercises the real global sway, and to do so at the expense of the most senior bishop of all: the Patriarch of Constantinople. It is the culmination of a development that has been taking place between the Middle Eastern leaders of the Christian minority and the Russian Church and state since the beginning of the 21st century.

This forging of ties is just one event within a larger and ongoing phenomenon: the attempt by Middle Eastern Christians to secure their community’s survival. From the Iraq war onward, these ancient minority communities have been caught up in the region’s larger upheavals. They have frequently been in the crosshairs of radical religious factions and terrorist organizations, particularly from the extreme wings of Sunni movements which see themselves as fighting combined threats of American, Russian, and Shi’a hegemony. However, Christians in the region have also forged renewed ties with many groups in the face of a combined threat: Shi’a communities, Sunnis opposing terror organizations like ISIS and al-Nusra, and other ethnic and religious minorities. They have been courted by governments, particularly that of Bashar al-Assad. Finally, they have sought to gain the attention of the two great powers whose presence is most felt in the region: Russia and America.

The complex case of the Near East, where non-conforming Muslim communities, native Christians, and various monotheist and polytheist ethnoreligious groups compete with a variety of polities seeking to be regional hegemons, is a rich case study. These communitarian alliances are a direct response to regional catastrophes caused by disastrous foreign policy. Nation-building, the fomenting of popular protests, and the inability to fill power vacuums left by toppled leaders created the conditions for war and displacement. By following the Christian communities, we can begin to understand how these coalitions unite interests, and which regional and international powers are best-placed to work with them.

Three states in particular—Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria—have struggled with how to govern highly diverse populations, as ethno-religious diversity in particular often leads to bloodshed. The latter two successfully struck a fragile balance through authoritarian political regimes. Both, for a variety of reasons, drew the ire of the United States and its allies in the region, and one of those states was successfully toppled. This led to disaster for communities lacking the ability to take control of the new power structure. Instead, they have acted to protect their interests, and survival, by exploiting both the historical and immediate interests of foreign hegemons, especially Russia. This has in some cases fundamentally altered their relationships with other communities and states, particularly Israel, with whom native Christians have always had an uneasy détente as a result of their own ethnic loyalties and rivalries.

It is hard to remember now, after two years of investigation into whether Russia was responsible for the election of Donald Trump, but speculation on Russia was decidedly less fevered and negative throughout Barack Obama’s second term as president. Starting in June of 2012, near the height of Obama’s successful campaign for a second term, The Daily Beast told the world that “Iraqi Christians See Putin as a Savior.” The American Conservative and The American Interest, among a flurry of others, responded with cautious optimism. By 2014, the Kremlin had announced Putin’s official policy to defend the interests of Christians worldwide. Embroiled in the controversy around Crimea’s secession from Ukraine, Christian persecution in the Middle East became an important power play for Russia against the United States in U.S. media, with some conservative outlets like The American Thinker asking “Who Will Save Middle Eastern Christians?” with Russia as the implied answer. Others, like Accuracy in Media, warned that Putin had no interest in aiding Christians anywhere.

It is clear that Putin, whatever his intentions, has seen value in branding himself a friend of Christians worldwide. He has continued to do so throughout the Syrian Civil War.

During the Obama years, with a portion of the political right in America having turned against U.S. foreign policy, another narrative could be cultivated. By 2011, an undercurrent of pro-Christian, anti-war thought had started circulating and soon broke into more widely circulated right-wing publications. When the rise of ISIS captured global attention, defense of Christians as a foreign policy aim became a mainstream conservative stance. Behind all of this was an informal network of priests, bishops, and laypeople on both sides of the Atlantic, who were broadcasting their message of the situation in the Middle East on social media and through international organizations. Examples of such organizations include Aid to the Church in Need, a Roman Catholic non-profit, and the global network Voice of the Martyrs. Sometimes, this came to the surface in direct calls for peace on the part of high-ranking clergy.

Ongoing conversations about the state of Middle Eastern Christians, as well as more specific conversations about Russia’s challenge to the U.S. for hegemony in the region, saw the public mind primed for nearly six years on the disastrous nature of the U.S. foreign policy. The result was a far more ambiguous view of the Middle East than the war-hawk lobby in Washington could use. The main actors making this possible are hard to miss—Patriarch John X of Antioch, among them. His appearance in October 2017 as part of a panel on the future of Christianity in Syria hosted by the Hudson Institute is one of the more obvious displays of his continuing outreach to Western audiences as a means of diffusing the sort of sentiment that led many Americans to support the war in Iraq.

While the Pope in 2003 appealed for peace in language largely used by the left, Patriarch John appeared, along with Metropolitan Joseph, the senior prelate of the Antiochian church in North America, at an event hosted by a decidedly conservative organization. Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, caught between his largely Palestinian flock and the occasionally unscrupulous government of Israel, followed the lead of his fellow bishop to the north. He met with Republican political organizer and fundraiser Yuri Vanetik, originally from Ukraine. Vanetik has a complicated relationship with the GOP, but has been present on the campaign trail of several major GOP candidates over the years, including dedicated hawks on Russia and Syria John McCain and Mitt Romney. For the Patriarch of Jerusalem, though, the inside baseball of Vanetik’s rocky relationship with the GOP is not significant—what is significant is that the Patriarch, or his inner circle, thought it was advisable to meet with Vanetik and spend a great deal of time speaking very well of Donald Trump.

Expanded attention from around the globe has been a boon for the Middle East’s Christians. But even more direct overtures have come from closer to home. Overtures from the Shi’a Islamic political party Hezbollah to the native Christian community in Lebanon and Syria have been met with very little resistance and a great deal of warmth. Hezbollah fighters deployed in Syria against ISIS were photographed saluting and paying respects to Christian statues and icons of Mary and Jesus, in a clear effort at outreach to Christians both in Syria and the West. Despite a long history of antagonism that occasionally still surfaces, Christians in both Lebanon and Syria are increasingly supportive of their former enemies in Hezbollah. While John X has not openly commented on Hezbollah, priests under his authority have been making very interesting reinterpretations of Christian history painting the Muslim relationship in much more favorable light.

The growing warmth between the two has excited the ire of Israel and its base of support among many Evangelical Protestants in the West. Israel has never had a particularly warm relationship with the Palestinian Christians living along its borders, but the two have sustained a sort of détente that the Christian community’s new friends are threatening. Any effort by Israel to strengthen this relationship is further undermined by more radical elements of Israeli society and government, which have increased persecution of Arab Christians. Most are Orthodox and Catholic Christians, whose coreligionists live in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, all countries profoundly affected by the policies of Israel and its allies. Arab Christians in both their homelands and the U.S. have, in turn, soured more violently on Israel. The climate is illustrated particularly well by Ted Cruz’s remarks during his 2016 presidential bid; appearing before a summit in defense of Middle Eastern Christians, he praised Israel as Christians’ greatest ally in the region and was booed off stage. Whatever Cruz might have been able to offer, so few of the Christians present considered Israel a neutral party, or even a lesser evil, that they were willing to chase him off instead.

Two years later, the situation had not improved. This was evidenced by a rather daring, perhaps even belligerent, article in The Guardian authored by Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem condemning both Israeli settler activities and Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. These were moves that also prompted hostility from Jordanian Christians. The colder approach has had consequences regarding U.S. relations with the leaders of the Christian communities of the Middle East. Meanwhile, John X opened 2019 by meeting with representatives of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, an unprecedented step that has enormous implications, given the growing warmth between Iran’s client Hezbollah and the Syrian Christian community. With Trump’s recent decision to recognize Israeli dominion over the contested Golan Heights, it seems unlikely that the Patriarch of Antioch will be changing course, creating potential for the Christian community to act as a lynchpin in cooperative efforts between Russia, Syria, and Iran.

Even with alliances with Hezbollah and Iran, the growing relationship with Russia will remain a powerful factor in the Christian community’s opposition. That should give policy-makers in Israel and the United States pause. Russia has proven a very successful player in the Middle East, having convincingly branded itself as a bulwark against ISIS and similar groups. Further, Russian involvement in the Middle East plays to deeper historic ambitions within the Russian state. Putin has in the past expressed not just admiration, but demonstrable commitment, to the governing philosophy of Piotr Stolypin, one of the last truly successful Prime Ministers under Tsar Nicholas II, in front of whom he was murdered in 1911.

Putin’s warm relationship with the memory of the last Tsar, whom many venerate as a saint in the Orthodox Church, is not exactly a secret. Imperial history plays an important role in Putin’s elevation of a “great Russia,” though sometimes in tension with a similar attitude toward the country’s Soviet heritage. His loyalty to their memory, however, lives on in his public statements, including his filmed meeting with Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The two discussed the merits of Stolypin and Putin’s deep desire to tie himself to Stolypin’s reputation as a ruthless but talented reformer, perhaps the last who might have saved Russia from the chaos of revolution. Once overlooked in popular history, Stolypin has become a figure of increasing attention throughout Putin’s rule. Of particular relevance to Middle Eastern Christians is Stolypin’s membership in and active support of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, which Putin recognized formally in 2012 for their “contribution to the preservation and popularization of the cultural and historical heritage of Russia in the Holy Land.” Even if Putin is playing a part for the sake of Realpolitik, he cannot play it convincingly without certain actions that commit to an ongoing role as patron of the region’s Christians, which will require Russia to have long-lasting involvement in the Middle East.

Russia is certainly coming down in the Middle East on the side of America’s historical enemies, namely the Shi’a Muslim communities and polities of the region. But Russia knows better than to poke a wounded bear. Putin has likewise demonstrated the importance he gives ties to Israel on numerous occasions, meaning he does not—at least openly—consider his foreign policy in the Middle East to be of an anti-Zionist nature.

La Croix noted in 2014 that Russia is reflecting a historical habit of stepping into the void left by Western failures in the Near East. When Putin met with Patriarch John X in December of 2017, the Christians of Damascus would not have seen a chess master and an oddly dressed pawn, but a call-back to a similar meeting of Russian dignitaries when Patriarch Gregory IV (Hadad) of Antioch was invited by Tsar Nicholas to celebrate Orthodox liturgy in St. Petersburg. At the time, this was a sign of support for the embattled Arab Patriarch, whose election was not recognized by the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Jerusalem, or Alexandria because he was not an ethnic Greek and therefore not part of the traditional elite of the church in the Levant. This was the result of the Ottoman policy of identifying Orthodoxy with Greek ethnicity in order to better control the minority by stoking ethnic hatreds.

The recent show of support for the Russian Orthodox Church’s stance in Ukraine, articulated in a joint declaration by the Patriarchates of Antioch and Serbia—a long-standing ally of the Russian Church and vocal supporter of Putin—only further solidifies Patriarch John’s warm and willing alliance with Russia. And he’s not alone, either; the Maronite Catholic patriarch of Antioch, Bechara Boutros Rai, spoke glowingly of Russian intervention in Syria in the same breath that he said “outsiders” should leave Middle Eastern Christians alone. If John X and Cardinal Rai continue to think and act in this way, seeking alliances with the leaders of the Shi’a population, this will only bring Russia, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon closer together. Such a broad alliance may well accomplish what the United States has continuously failed to do in the Middle East: “win hearts and minds.” The fruits are already beginning to show: when Russian humanitarian aid arrived in Damascus in early April, both Christians and Muslims were there to welcome it.

With these coalitions set to shape the Middle East for a generation or more, the U.S. is likely to find itself and its unpopular allies in Tel Aviv and Riyadh painted into a corner. Strategic alliances based on ethnic and religious affinities, and backed by a number of states involved in the region, could bring about a measure of unity not seen since 1967. Those who remember 1967 as a massive failure of the Arab bloc will recall the half-hearted commitment of the Saudis and the bad advice (or bad faith) from the Soviets that resulted in the near complete destruction of the Egyptian air forces. With these religious and historical affinities, is Putin’s Russia as likely to leave its Arab allies in the lurch? More importantly, is it a gamble worth taking?

On the other hand, Shi’a Muslim actors in the region depend heavily on their ties with Christians to legitimize themselves as a non-sectarian force. As communities rebuild together, this creates a strong incentive for ongoing cooperation. A splintering of the coalition might well undermine the position of Iran and its religious allies against their American, Saudi, Israeli, and Turkish rivals.

Viewed through this lens, the axis on which the Middle East’s new balance of power is turning is a Christian cross.

Stephen Borthwick is a world-historian. His most current projects include a biography of Oswald Spengler and an analysis of religious revival and multipolarity. He holds an M.A. in social science from the University of Chicago.