Syria's Assad can count on support of Russian Orthodox Church
Russian Christians have extracted a promise from Putin that is a boost to the embattled Syrian president
THERE ARE many reasons for Russia to support Syria in the face of anger from Western nations outraged at the killings of civilians, including the two countries' military relationship. But a promise made by President Vladimir Putin to the Russian Orthodox Church to protect Christians in the Middle East could be another factor in Moscow's support for President Bashar al-Assad.
Russian Orthodox Christians apparently fear that Christian minorities will be the victims of a wave of Islamic fundamentalism in Syria should Assad fall, The New York Times reports.
In a recent meeting with Syrian diplomats in a cathedral near the Kremlin, Russian Orthodox leader Patriarch Kirill I shared anxieties about the fate of Syria's ten per cent minority population of Christians.
So far, Christians in Syria have been reluctant to join the mainly Sunni Muslim opposition to Assad, fearing persecution should the uprising succeed. Preferring a position of support for the sitting leader, the Orthodox Church in Moscow has been wielding what influence it has with the Kremlin.
When Vladimir Putin sought support from Russia's religious leaders in his recent presidential election campaign he pledged millions to reconstruct places of worship and for religious schools. The Orthodox Church said it did not want the money, but asked Putin to promise to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East.
"So it will be," Putin said. "There is no doubt at all."
Many analysts think this policy of support for the incumbent is short-sighted. "What we see now in Syria is systemic failure — it's brutal, it's now an insurgency — but in the end it's just systemic failure," said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Syria.
"If the Christian population and those that support it want a long-term future in the region, they're going to have to accept that hitching their wagon to this brutal killing machine doesn't have a long-term future."
Such sentiments have failed so far to move Patriarch Kirill. While on the church website an official statement has been posted that says "any interpretation of the patriarch's visit to Syria as support for the Assad regime is totally unfounded", his actions say otherwise.
Photographs of Kirill's street procession on a trip to Damascus in November last year show him alongside his Syrian counterpart, flanked by smiling crowds holding aloft pictures of Assad's portrait. Kirill later made a sympathetic appearance with Assad, praising Syria's treatment of Christians and making no mention of the mounting death toll.