Why are the Patriarch and Pope coming together on Levant crisis now?

Dr. Theodore Karasik

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The historical meeting in Cuba between the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis is certainly timely in the context of the Levantine affairs. With a so-called ceasefire pending in Syria on March 1 and the possible entry of more actors into the country’s battlespace, the holy meeting, advertised as the first in almost 1000 years (1054-2016), is certainly a millennial event with geopolitical implications.

Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis, in a joint declaration on religious unity, called on world leaders to prevent Christians in the Near East from “being completely exterminated” and to help refugees from those regions. The two religious leaders embraced warmly in front of the cameras before proceeding to hold closed-door two-hour talks.

Their joint declaration said: “Our gaze must firstly turn to those regions of the world where Christians are victims of persecution. In many countries of the Middle East and North Africa, whole families, villages, and cities of our brothers and sisters in Christ are being completely exterminated,” the declaration stated. Specifically, Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis drew attention to the violence in Iraq and Syria, stressing the severity of the humanitarian problem in the region, and urging the international community to stand up and help.

“Thousands of victims have already been claimed in the violence in Syria and Iraq, which has left many other millions without a home or means of sustenance. We urge the international community to seek an end to the violence and terrorism and, at the same time, to contribute through dialogue to a swift return to civil peace. Large-scale humanitarian aid must be assured to the afflicted populations and to the many refugees seeking safety in neighboring lands.”

Importantly, the two also discussed the relations between the Churches and the problems of their believers, in addition to sharing views on the progress of human civilization. The declaration also called on the world to unite against terrorism and help free those who have been kidnapped by extremists including Syrian-based metropolitans. From an ISIS point of view, this meeting may be another defining moment.

Two points

First, the meeting occurred on the one year anniversary of the February 12, 2015 “Message in Blood to the Christian Nation” from ISIS when its supporters killed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on the shores of Libya, spilling their bodies and blood into the Mediterranean Sea. The message was a clear signal to Europe – to include Russia – and specifically to Rome, that ISIS is launching a new phase of its attacks. And that they did in Paris and other European and Near Eastern cities with fierceness in 2015.

In addition, from their point of view, the 1054 rupture between Rome and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, modern Istanbul, an ancient see whose incumbent is still considered the “first among equals” among the prelates of the Orthodox Christian world, are now united on the Near East. Thus, more reason to attack the Crusaders and the Muslim pretenders in Istanbul.

Second, it’s important to remember that all the Orthodox churches are autocephalous, and in the past to present day, there is a fight on canonical territory. Thus, the meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope signifies a unique moment of unity between churches on the Levantine calamity, a key dual focal point.

The meeting between the Patriarch and the Pope signifies a unique moment of unity between churches on the Levantine calamity, a key dual focal point

Dr. Theodore Karasik

ISIS has been systematically eradicating Christianity’s traces from the region, killing and expelling thousands of Syrian Christians and demolishing the world’s historical heritage in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. It is torturing, extorting, or forcibly converting hundreds of thousands of Christians.

The terror outfit wants the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church to unify with a total of 1.4 billion followers. A “smallish” 150 million plus are Russian Orthodox but play an important role in their worldview especially in the Near East.

Pope Francis is no stranger to Russia and President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s attitude towards the Levant. In September 2013, the Pope, for all intensive purposes, joined forces with Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive (U.S. President Barack Obama’s infamous red line failure) in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Near East Christians. The Catholic-Orthodox landscape is changing and this momentous event signals an added dimension to the Levantine conflict: the intervention and blessing of churches on military action.

Humanitarian issues

We need to recall that both churches are blessing military action in order to address humanitarian issues. In March 2005, the Vatican’s representative to the U.N. Italian Archbishop Silvano Tomasi made an unusually blunt endorsement of military action by calling for a coordinated international force to stop ISIS in Syria and Iraq from further assaults on Christians and other minority groups.

Tomasi said that any anti-ISIS coalition has to include the Muslim states of the Middle East, and can’t simply be a “Western approach.” In September 2015, the Russian Orthodox Church also commented on Putin’s targeting of ISIS as part of a war on terrorism. Patriarch Kirill said “Russia took a responsible decision to use military forces to protect the Syrian people from the woes brought on by the tyranny of terrorists.”

He cited the suffering of Christians in the region, the kidnapping of clerics and the destruction of churches, adding that Muslims “are suffering no less.” Simultaneously, the then-Head of the Church’s Public Affairs Department Chaplin Vsevolod Chaplin asserted: “The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it.”

Overall, the meeting between the leaders of Western and Eastern Christianity’s largest churches is surely to be yet another historical marker in the ongoing war for Syria.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans.

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