The suffering of Christians in the Middle East often has been exploited to advance the agendas of authoritarian governments, particularly those claiming to fight “wars on terror.”
In recent years, Bashar al-Assad has used such suffering as a way to discourage scrutiny of his atrocities, dispatching to Washington, for instance, loyalist Christian delegations who bear a single, uncomplicated message: Muslim extremists are the only cause for turmoil in a war-ravaged country and so, by implication, a “secular” dictatorship is the last line of defense for this embattled confessional minority.
It was a convenient and clever narrative, which worked only insofar as one ignored the regime’s responsibility for the majority of damaged or destroyed churches in Syria; its arrest, torture, and murder of Christian anti-regime activists; and its well-documented history of conniving with the very jihadis from which it now claims to be protecting vulnerable adherents of the Gospels.
Yet where the mukhabarat information warriors may have their sites on such low-hanging fruit as Tulsi Gabbard, Dana Rohrabacher and Sebastian Gorka, they’ve never had the cojones to go after Christ’s vicar on earth. That task, it seems, was left to the former KGB.
The Daily Beast has learned that the Russian government recently tried to dupe Pope Francis into lending his imprimatur to a similar propaganda stunt, this one designed to lower the temperature on U.S.-Russian hostilities in Syria under the fraternal guise of interdenominational solidarity. And when the pontiff refused, an arm of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) went ahead and lent his imprimatur to it anyway.
Last month, Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration came up with the idea of a “joint declaration,” or goszadanie, to be issued by Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church—and Pope Francis—calling for peace and “de-escalation” by major powers in the Middle East.
Sounds benign enough. But this appeal was part of a broader initiative by the Department for External Church Relations, a kind of ecumenical foreign ministry for the ROC. Putin’s office had instructed it to use its “wide international network” to “support the Kremlin’s policy in Syria… to support the Assad regime,” according to a classified intelligence memo provided to The Daily Beast by a Western security service. The memo cited an anonymous source within the ROC. The campaign, the Russian presidential administration believed, would rely on the “support or at least positive comments from the Holy See.”
Except the Holy See wouldn’t bite.
Pope Francis, wisely, was wary of attaching his name alone alongside that of Patriarch Kirill. According to the classified memo, the initial draft cooked up by Department for External Church Relations concentrated on the “current state of relations between Russia and the U.S.” and emphasized the need for a meeting between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin to resolve the crisis in Syria—referencing as its underlying premise Assad’s supposed stature as a protector of religious minorities.
The Vatican, according to the memo, countered that it wanted “at least five other patriarchates of Eastern Christianity and local Catholic heads of church be involved, especially Bartholomew I, the Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch.” Without Bartholomew, the Vatican made clear, there would be no Francis.
Discussions between Rome and Moscow on the context and wording of the declaration were led, respectively, by Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the Department for External Church Relations.
In keeping with the goal of trying to get a papal blessing to minimize the new Cold War or “hot peace” between nations, Hilarion is said to have wanted to enlist American Christian representatives on the text, as well, including Franklin Graham, the head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. That was another idea of which the Vatican did not approve.
On April 16, Ecumenical Patriarch Father Bartholomew I finally declined to join the declaration, and thus there was no way Pope Francis would sign on. That had been the Vatican’s quite explicit sine qua non. But Metropolitan Hilarion’s department went ahead and published it anyway, couching it as the fruitful yield of a conversation between the ROC patriarch and the head of the Church of Rome. It was picked up all over the Russian-language press. And the Vatican was none too pleased.
On April 17, Koch reportedly rang Hilarion and blamed him for misappropriating the name and word of the head of the Catholic Church. Patriarch Kirill is now also said to be furious at Hilarion, and has threatened to find “a new foreign minister” for the ROC.
The final text of the declaration did not single out the U.S. and Russia, but called on the “countries of the United Nations, and particularly members of the Security Council… to overcome their disagreements and to work together for peace in the world. Together we call upon the political leaders to avoid a further escalation of tensions, to eschew confrontation and to embrace dialogue.”
A source close to the Vatican confirmed to The Daily Beast the broad strokes of this story, saying, “This was a unilateral statement released by Russia, not a joint statement with the Vatican and you can be 100 percent sure of that by the fact that the Vatican did not release it. Normally if the Vatican releases a joint statement, they publish it on the press office website, the official bulletin and Osservatore Romano and this was never released that way, and that says a lot.”
It also says a lot that the Moscow Patriarchate could be portrayed as apolitical and pro-Catholic, neither of which is true. Since the early 2000s, the ROC has worked closely with the FSB, Russia’s domestic security arm. The former patriarch, Aleksey II, was himself allegedly a KGB informant during the Soviet period.
The church “is always suspicious of Catholic expansion,” as Andrei Soldatov and Irina Borogan wrote in their 2010 book The New Nobility: The Restoration of Russia’s Security State and the Enduring Legacy of the KGB, noting that in 2002 five Catholic priests were kicked out of Russia by Putin’s security organs, with some of them being branded foreign spies. “The FSB helps to protect the Orthodox sphere of influence against Western proselytizing, and in return the church blesses the security service in its struggle with enemies of the state.”
The black cowl of Orthodoxy has also been adopted by Putin as the raiment of his new state ideology of messianic nationalism, with himself cast in the lead role of messiah. Not only did Kirill endorse Putin’s re-election as president in 2012, he labeled his successive terms in office “miracles of God.” Indeed, the church in recent years has lent its sacred stamp of approval on every significant political decision Putin has taken, from the invasion and annexation of Crimea to the institutionalization of homophobia and the crushing of “Satanic” civic dissent in the form of the punk-activist group Pussy Riot.
All of which conspires to make this attempted cooptation of other Christian sects particularly galling for some observers. “It was a cynical Russian ploy to manipulate the real suffering of Middle East Christian minorities to shore up their bloody partner Assad,” says Alberto Fernandez, a former U.S. ambassador and now the president of the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. “This is the same Assad who supported thousands of jihadists going to Iraq to kill Middle East Christians in addition to other Iraqis and Americans.”
Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, adds that for an information campaign ostensibly aimed at appealing to Western sensibilities, the exploitation of Christian minorities actually comes encoded with an anti-Western conceit: “For both Assad and Putin the Christian card is useful for the same reasons. By utilizing Christian emissaries, both attempt to present themselves to a significant Western audience—especially in the United States and the Vatican—as the only defenders of Christianity from the Islamist or secular threats. But that is only half the message. Next to the positive propaganda about them comes the negative propaganda about the West, its own leaders, and policies, with the goal of creating a wedge in Western societies and undermining both their resolve and populations’ trust in them.”
Barbie Latza Nadeau in Rome also contributed to this story.