Three patriarchs — two of them Orthodox and the other Catholic — have co-signed a statement strongly condemning the Western air strikes against Syrian government positions while reasserting their support for the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies.
In the background, the Russian Orthodox Church is maneuvering to position itself as the defender of the Christian presence in the Middle East.
The joint statement issued on April 14 in the hours following the strikes by France, the United Kingdom and the United States in Syria, and published in English on the website of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, was an irrevocable condemnation.
In it, Antioch’s two orthodox patriarchs — Greek Orthodox Patriarch John X, head of the largest orthodox church in Syria, and Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II — along with Melkite-Greek Catholic Patriarch Joseph Absi of Antioch denounced “the brutal aggression that took place this morning against our precious country Syria by the U.S., France and the U.K., under the allegations that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons.”
The nine-point communiqué condemned the “clear violation of the international laws and the U.N. Charter,” the absence of “sufficient and clear evidence” that the Syrian army uses chemical weapons and the “brutal aggression (that) destroys the chances for a peaceful political solution.”
The patriarchs thus asked the United Nations Security Council to “play its natural role” to avoid an escalation and called on “all churches in the countries that participated in the aggression to fulfill their Christian duties according to the teachings of the Gospel and condemn this aggression.”
Further, they unequivocally saluted “the courage, heroism and sacrifices of the Syrian Arab Army, which courageously protects Syria and provides security for its people.”
“We, likewise, commend the brave stand of countries which are friendly to […] Syria and its people,” the communique added.
Close to the Syrian regime which it has always viewed as a rampart against the Islamist threat, the Orthodox hierarchy has rarely been so unequivocal in its support for Bashar al-Assad since the start of the conflict in 2011.
“It’s not so much the reaction against the Western strikes as the level of solidarity with Bashar that is impressive in this communiqué,” said Cyrille Bret, a lecturer at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences-Po) and specialist in Russia and the Middle East.
“That means the Orthodox hierarchy has taken note of the fact that the war has largely been won on the ground by the Russian-Syrian troops and that it now envisages the future around Bashar, seen as the sole guarantor of confessional diversity.”
Co-signed by a Catholic, this support shown to the Alawite regime has now taken an ecumenical turn.
If the fear of massacres and persecution works as a powerful unifying factor for these historically divided communities, it’s hard to say if the Christian communities unanimously support their patriarchs.
“The prevailing feeling on the ground is that the Western strikes did not wait for the expert reports,” said Msgr. Pascal Gollnisch, director of l’Œuvre d’Orient association. “The Iraqi episode in 2003 marked people’s minds and you can understand that the Christians, like their hierarchy, are in doubt.”
Supported by Vladimir Putin, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is also playing the role of defender of the Christian presence in the Middle East.
The head of the biggest Orthodox church, who brought together all the Eastern patriarchs in December last, met with Pope Francis on April 14 to discuss the situation in Syria. Implanted in the Middle East since the 19 century, the Russian Orthodox Church has strengthened its presence in Syria in the wake of the Russian army, particularly with dispensaries.
“Russia wants to show that it has a weighty interlocutor in the West in the person of the pope,” said Bret. “In this way, it also avoids becoming embroiled in an East/West conflict and has a witness of good morality to make its policy in Syria more acceptable to the eyes of the West.”
At the Angelus in Rome on Sunday April 15, Pope Francis said, for his part, that he was “deeply troubled” by the situation in Syria, where, he noted, it was difficult to agree on joint action in favour of peace.
“The Holy See’s place is to be at the side of the victims,” Msgr. Gollnisch said. “Chemical attacks are not acceptable, but as long as formal proof has not been provided, we are in difficulty. Trying to build peace in such a context, doubtless seems average, but it’s all we can do.”
This article first appeared in La Croix International on 17 April 2018