Russia and Syrian Christians, ctd.

5 Jun

Shrine of St. John in the Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus, said to contain the head of John the Baptist.  The mosque was built on the site of a basilica dedicated to St. John, which was built on the site of a Roman temple to Jupiter, which was built on the site of an Aramean temple of Hadad-Ramman, god of thunder and lightning.  (Click on photo; also Google Image this magnificent building; it gets much less visual exposure than it deserves — a spectacular extra wide-angle shot of the mosque’s exterior.)

Walter Russel Mead reiterates what I’ve commented on in previous posts: What Russia doesn’t forget:

“The roots of Russia’s support for Butcher Assad go deep. This is much more than nostalgia for Russia’s last Middle East ally from Soviet days. This is about getting back in touch with Russia’s pre-communist foreign policy traditions, and about Putin’s relations with one of his most reliable and important bases of support: the Russian Orthodox Church.  The Church has historically exerted a strong pull on Russian policies overseas, especially in defense of Christian minorities in the Balkans and Middle East. Throughout the events of the Arab Spring, Russia has been reluctant — to put it kindly — to join the efforts to unseat dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad. Though these tyrants have often been brutal toward many of their citizens, Christian minorities have, by and large, thrived under their rule.”

Some commentators, like Andrew Sullivan, find this “a novel explanation for Putin’s intransigence.”  It’s not news to some of us.  That Eastern Christians have been stuck between a rock (Western manipulation and imperialist intrusion) and a hard place (Islam when it grows intolerant, often, but not always, in response to the former) for something like a millenium now, is a fact that one has to know very little about the region to not be aware of.  Mead’s historical run-down on the discomforts of that position is extremely thorough though pretty simplistic, but his post is full of good links if you want to check them out.

I have a substantial investment in being an Orthodox Christian: on one hand, because it’s simply a supremely intelligent and beautiful form of Christianity; on the other, because it’s simply the lesser of all Christian and, by extension, monotheist evils; Rebecca West’s observation that “The Eastern Church never forgot that the primary purpose of religion is magic” is at the heart of both those sentiments.  I guess I feel some sense of Orthodox solidarity too — warily (and phenomena like Greeks going off to help Serbs kill Muslims in Bosnia or Orthodox skinheads in Moscow killing Central Asian migrants always pop up to keep me wary).  But as I’ve mentioned before here and here, there’s no indication that Russia has ever done anything in the Balkans and Near East that was not in its own imperialist self-interest and that did not often end in disaster for those it was trying to “help.”

Even less, as Mead points out, should be expected from the West:

“Linked to that memory are memories of Western Christian treachery and betrayal. From the Fourth Crusade, ostensibly sent to protect Eastern Christians but turned into a piratical assault on Constantinople [“piratical assault”??  How about thorough and almost complete looting and destruction?], to memories of how the westerners made their help conditional on Orthodox submission to the authority of the Popes, a history of betrayal shapes the Orthodox political mind in many of these countries.”

The seed of this blog was a very early, indisputably emotional and personal, desire to heal Turks’ and Greeks’ feelings for each other, which I realized could only be accomplished by fixing Greeks’ warped sense of where they belong in the world (probably a hopeless project) and which later grew into a wider ideal of regional integration and community, so this issue is really one that goes to the heart of why I write here.  Pretending that you’re French or Ancient Greeks that need help in a rough neighborhood won’t cut it.  Islamophobic panic or seeing one’s self as the Christian frontier or bastion against the Saracens leads to the group pathology of Serbs or Maronites.  Greek and Armenian alliance choices in the early twentieth century almost immediately resulted in the complete eradication of Christianity from Anatolia.  Cultural emulation intended to garner support leads to the skewed self-image of contemporary Greeks.

Tying your survival to extra-regional players or regimes like Assad’s that are destined to soon make their exit is a losing strategy for the region’s Christians.  The threat of Islamist violence is probably real.  Iraq and even Egypt certainly seem to indicate that.  But their only choice is probably the tricky dance of fostering, or just going with, the flow of democratic change while keeping themselves as least vulnerable as possible.  Forget Russia.  And, as Constantine XI had to heroically face in the end, there’s certainly no help coming from the Frangoi.*  If you want to live in peace and security, look to your neighbor because, ultimately, he’s the only one who can provide it for you.

* I promised an explanation of this term but haven’t gotten to it yet; for now, let’s just say a derogatory term for Western Europeans.

The church above, which Read uses in his post, is the Church of the Savior in St. Petersburg, built in a Neo-Muscovite mediaeval style, which sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the Neoclassical elegance of the city, on the spot where Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, modelled on the style of the church of St. Basil on Red Square below.  Both are routinely used to immediately signify “Russia!” and its exoticness or orientalness.



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