Persecuted Christians in Iraq Look to Putin as an Unlikely Ally
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
Frequently cited as an old Arabic saying, this oft-quoted phrase more likely came out of India, in a 4th century treatise on military strategy written in Sanskrit. But whatever its origin, it reflects a universal human phenomenon: in desperate times, a friend is one willing to stand with you against your enemy, regardless of that friend's own history or former inclinations.
A post Sunday in The Daily Beast, titled "Iraq's Christians See Putin as Savior," points up the calamitous situation of the followers of Jesus in what is now Iraq, under siege from the Islamist militant group known as ISIS. In droves, Christians have been fleeing the first major city to fall to ISIS, Mosul, and the irony is thick on the ground.
Mosul is the capital of Nineveh province, and the modern city has spread across the Tigris River to encompass areas on the opposite bank, formerly the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. In Rudyard Kipling's 1897 poem/prayer "Recessional," written to mark Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, he begs the Almighty to remain with England, lest it forget Christ's sacrifice and fade away like other great empires.
He wrote, "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre / Judge of the Nations, spare us yet / Lest we forget – lest we forget!"
Forgetting is one charge leveled at the West by some Christians in Iraq, who believe they have been abandoned in the West's geopolitical gamesmanship focused largely on warring Islamic factions in the region, which target Christians as brutally as they target each other.
Although Christians in general, and especially Catholics, were widely and savagely persecuted in the militantly atheistic Soviet Union, the collapse of Communism saw a swift change in attitudes, at least in public. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Communist leader of the former Soviet Union, baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, traveled to Assisi, Italy, in 2008. Rejecting his previous stance as an atheist, he proclaimed himself a Christian and knelt in prayer before the tomb of St. Francis, whom Gorbachev described as "the alter Christus, the other Christ."
Russia's current leader, Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, also was baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church. He made a great show of piety during a recent visit to Rome to meet with Pope Francis, and he has found a strong ally in Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The pontiff has made many overtures to Orthodox leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, most recently including him as a guest of honor in a multifaith prayer service in the Vatican Gardens, and this greeting in the June 29 homily during Mass at St. Peter's Basilica:
On this Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, the principal patrons of Rome, we welcome with joy and gratitude the delegation sent by the Ecumenical Patriarch, our venerable and beloved brother Bartholomaios, and led by Metropolitan Ioannis. Let us ask the Lord that this visit too may strengthen our fraternal bonds as we journey toward this full communion between the two Sister Churches which we so greatly desire.
However, the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the pope of the Orthodox Churches, which are self-governing, and Patriarch Kirill is not required, nor inclined, to follow his lead. Holding to the notion of Moscow as the "third Rome," popular at least since the 16th century, Kirill has made a political and religious alliance with Putin, with each bolstering the power of the other.
As most recently seen in the protests by Pussy Riot and by pro-gay activists leading up to the Sochi Olympics, Putin's Russia has declared itself a foe of the West's perceived march to hedonism, rampant consumerism, immorality, and functional atheism.
Putin found no less an ally in this than former GOP presidential candidate and fiery pundit Pat Buchanan, who wrote an April op-ed for Human Events which declared, "Putin is planting Russia's flag firmly on the side of traditional Christianity."
Against the backdrop of all of this, there is the perception that the West is indifferent to the plight of Mideast Christians, or, at best, is slow to respond to help Christians being deprived of rights, tortured, and killed in Syria, Nigeria, Iraq, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East.
In response, the ancient Christian populations of these areas – which existed for centuries before there even was an Islam – are turning from London, Paris, and Washington, D.C., to Moscow in hopes of finding someone who will come down strongly in their defense.
In a May 9 essay in Forbes, contributor Melik Kaylan writes, "Putin and Assad have maneuvered to become the explicit protectors of Eastern Christianity in situ. Moscow is back as their shield and Orthodoxy's patron... 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."
"The West is not Christian," Chaldean Church official Aziz Emmanuel al-Zebari of the Iraqi city of Erbil told The Daily Beast. "They destroyed us by installing a government based on Islamic sects in which we have [no] place."
Of Russia, he said, "They've always stood up for Christians. I'm sure they'd do more for us in our ancestral lands."
As Breitbart News reported, al-Zebari may have a point; Russia was already committing to delivering fighter jets to bolster the Iraqi air force at a time when U.S. philosophy centered on asking the Iraqi government to "step up to the plate" and be "inclusive."
If anyone is going to do anything, they'd better do it soon, since Christian populations that are able to escape slaughter and imprisonment are fleeing their indigenous homelands at an alarming rate.