Notes on Arab Orthodoxy- Hala Homsi- October 2015
Beware the bear, namely the “Russian bear”. For those who know Russian affairs, “when it rises up, it doesn’t just shake the inside of the house, but the entire world,” president of the Open University: Dialogue of Civilizations in Moscow, member of the Russian Academy of Education and Professor of Western Thought and Philosophy of Civilizations at Lebanese University, Dr Suheil Farh, tells an-Nahar. For the Russian bear to rise up finally and be active militarily in Syria in the air and on the ground. It is no surprise for those who have mastered reading Russian body language. In taking account of the front, defeat is forbidden, as though the battle is for the defense of the land of Russia itself. “Historically, no country has been able to defeat Russia.”
Historically also, “the Middle East or the Arab East has had a special place in Russian strategy over the decades,” says Farah. The evidence is well-documented and Russia’s interest in the Middle East has proven serious, rising and falling over the decades. If the Russian military has finally intervened in Syria, “then this is in order to use them to supress those elements that may be standing in the way of finding a political solution there,” says Farah. He continues, “We have arrived at a stage where all paths were coming to an impasse and the situation became unsupportable… The Russians took this position after the Western militaries failed in striking ISIS. Major regional and local players entered into a hellish and futile game and no one was able to bring it under control until the Russian bear came.”
“Russia is coming to the Middle East, motivated by the deep wounds it has from terror after having been struck by it on its territory. The terrible events of Chechnya and the entire Caucasus, the massacre at the school in Beslan, bombs at theaters and on trains and suicide bombings still rage in the Russian memory. First of all, Russia is coming today to defend itself here, before the serpent goes back to its country. It wants to strike it or cut its head off here. Secondly, it is coming to attempt to strengthen Russian institutions in the region as much as possible. Those who think that the person of the Syrian president Bashar al-Asad is its priority are mistaken. What currently terrifies Russia the most is for Syria’s fate to be like that of Libya.”
Those Implicated…. Marginalized
The equation is clear and the scenario is almost certain. “If the Rusian military intervention succeeds, many equations are going to change, not only on the level of Syria, Iraq and the entire Middle East, but also on a global level,” says Farah. A Russian success places “Russia in a stronger position in more than one regard. It will be able to negotiate and pressure more to impose its conditions. If it succeeds, all those who have been financing ISIS’ terrorism in the region, both states and other parties, will be marginalized because they are implicated.”
Farah knows what he is talking about. He tells skeptics that “Russia is not sentimental, but rather pragmatic.” This Lebanese academic is also a Russian citizen and has high stature in his second country. In 2011, the former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev awarded him the Pushkin Medal in the Kremlin. He was awarded the title “Person of the Year in the Field of Scholarship” in 2011 for his role in developing a theory of dialogue between civilizations. He has also received various other Russian awards. He stresses Russia’s pragmatism in order to affirm “its eagerness to have normal relationships with all Arab communities across all sects and so by definition Russia makes for the strongest guarantee for preserving Middle Eastern Christianity and minorities in the Arab countries.”
Russia was one of the first to be in the region. Its roots run deep and are historically strong in various fields, from trade to politics and culture and even spiritual relationships. Farah continues, “Historically, Russia belongs to Eastern Christianity and today, Islam has become a fundamental part of its identity, with the presence of around 20 million Muslims there.” In terms of spiritual matters, “The relationship between Russia and the Middle Eastern Orthodox is deep and warm. The relationship is strong between the Orthodox Churches of Russia and Antioch. Few know that it was the Antiochian Church that brought Christianity to Russia, and not, as some think, the Greeks,” he says.
In historical terms, a number of stages reflect the depth of the relationship between the Orthodox of Russia and those of the Arab Middle East. “Mikhail Sirin, ‘the Syrian’, was the first Orthodox metropolitan of Kiev, the Russian mother-city, after the Baptism of the Rus and he contributed to the spiritual establishment of warm relations with Russia. Likewise, the Patriarch of Antioch Joachim V undertook a historic journey to Russia, during which he signed an important document during the reign of Czar Feodor Ivanovich, allowing for the establishment of an independent patriarchate in Moscow in 1589. The Patriarch of Antioch Macarius made repeated journeys to Russia from 1655 to 1667 and he composed with his son and archdeacon Paul a book about Orthodox Russia which is still today one of the most important religious-historical sources about that era. No less important are visits by later patriarchs of Antioch, including Gregory IV, Alexander III, and Ignatius IV,”* as well as the current patriarch, John X.
Given these warm spiritual relations between Russia and the Middle East, Russian interest in the region is only natural and to be expected. “Today there is an intimate relationship between the regime and the Russian Church, more intimate than it was during the period of the czars, and it strengthens both parites,” says Farah. The open support that the Russian Church has demonstrated for the Russian military intervention in Syria reflects the strength of this relationship. “[The Church’s] position also comes in a broader framework that includes along side it the organizations of different religious communities– Christian, Jewish, Islamic and Buddhist. For these communities to support the regime in combating terror is a natural position. We must not forget that the Church’s position is also the position of more than 20 million Muslims, the majority of whom are Sunni.”
Great Emotional Power
As for using the expression “holy battle” by one of its spokesman, “it is a mistake.” “In the raging inferno in the media and among people, it fell flat… The reactions are understandable, but at the same time they reflect a very great emotional power, especially for the Middle Eastern mentality. In this regard, it must be emphasized that all enlightened minds in religions acknowledge that terrorism is synonymous with ignorance and every sort of mental and behavioral backwardness. As for religion and faith in general, it is what raises man up to heavenly things that bring everyone together.”
Farah knows very well that “the religious factor has come to take an important place in Russian geopolitical thinking.” He says, “Today Russia wants, on a global level, to follow a policy that is antithetical to the unrestrained liberal values in the West and that attempts to adhere to traditional, conservative values that are historically tied to the institution of the family and the positive cultural heritage of nations as an alternative to unrestrained liberal values. The Russian Church is playing an important role in this context and is filling the Christian spiritual void in Russia.”
But beware, warns Farah, “because in addition to the positive aspect of this role, there may be another, negative aspect, as the politicization and ideologization of religion reflects negatively on it and on the Christian message.” And this goes both ways: “The Christian Church and the religion of Islam must make use of their capacities for providing spiritual food for believers and to avoid the politicization and ideologization that is very harmful for both Christianity and Islam.”