In early January 2013, a United Nations special envoy reported that the civil war in Syria had reached "unprecedented levels of horror" with an estimated death toll of more than 60,000 people. In the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings, the situation for Christians in Syria, and in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, continues to deteriorate.
The Russian Orthodox Church has been among the most active witnesses against Christian persecution in Syria and other countries around the world. In a statement about the Middle East, the Russian Bishops' Council warned of "the vanishing of Christianity in the lands where it has existed for two millennia and where the main events of the Holy History took place would become a spiritual and historical tragedy."
The bishop in charge of external affairs for the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk, has compared the situation in Syria, after almost two years of fighting, to Iraq, which saw a virtual depopulation of Christians following the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Hilarion has also been active in ecumenical relations with Roman Catholics and conservative Protestants, including the Anglican Church of North America which represents U.S. and Canadian congregations. The Russian bishop has described the Roman Catholic Church as "the main bulwark" in the West standing in defense of traditional moral values. He has worked to build stronger ties with other Christian communities but has also been outspoken about what he sees as a lack of "fidelity to Biblical principles in the realm of morality" in progressive Protestant churches.
Religion & Liberty Executive Editor John Couretas interviewed Hilarion in October 2012 at the Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wis. He was at the Anglican seminary to receive an honorary Doctor of Music degree. noted composer as well as an accomplished Orthodox Christian theologian, he delivered a talk at Nashotah titled, "The Music of J.S. Bach as a Religious Phenomenon." In the interview, the Russian bishop talks about the situation in the Middle East, the Balkans and North Africa, and ecumenical relations.
R&L: What, in your mind, needs to happen in Syria to bring an end to the violence and to begin the process of reconciliation in that part of the world?
Metropolitan Hilarion: If we look at events which have been unfolding in the Middle East for the last 10 years, we can see a tendency, which is noticeable in many countries. And this has to do with the gradual extermination of Christianity in the Middle East due to various political reasons, due to great political instability, which is peculiar to many countries of this region. I think if we look at the example of Iraq, for example, we'll see that 10 years ago there were 1.5 million Christians living in that country. Now, there are only 150,000 left. So nine-tenths of the Christian population of Iraq was either exterminated or had to flee.
Pope Benedict XVI greets Alfeyev Hilarion, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk, upon his arrival for a private audience at the Vatican
The situation is also dire for the Copts.
We see a very grave situation of Christians in Egypt where thousands of Coptic Christians have had to leave the country because they can no longer live there. We see a very difficult situation in Libya, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and now even in Syria. I was recently in Rome addressing the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, and two senior Catholic prelates from the Middle East region approached me. One was a Maronite and the other one was a Melkite. And both of them thanked me for the position of the Russian Orthodox Church and also for the position of the Russian Federation on the international scene with regards to Syria, because the Russian Federation does not take position in favor of one or another party of the country. But we believe that all parties of the conflict should be partners of the dialogue. If you simply ignore one party, then it doesn't lead anywhere.
Are there any areas in Syria now where religious minorities are secure?
What we see now is that the inter-religious situation in the regions which are still controlled by the government is stable. It is as stable as it used to be for many decades, if not centuries. In the places where rebels take power, for example in the city of Homs, we see that immediately the Iraqi scenario is being put in practice. We see that Christians are in grave danger. They have to flee; they have to leave their homes. And people from Syria, the religious leaders with whom I spoke, they fear that if the regime is overthrown, then they will have to leave their country. This is what was happening in Iraq. This is what is happening in Egypt. And this is what is likely to happen in Syria. So I think the foreign powers, which try to work for democracy in these countries—in order to achieve it they intervene. They should always think about the Christian minority because it seems to me that these people are simply ignored. Nobody takes into account their existence, their sufferings, and the fact that they become the first victims of the unrest when the political situation of these countries changes. I spoke about this at the Synod of Bishops in Rome. And most recently I spoke about this at the session of the Third Committee of the United Nations in New York. And I cited examples of several countries where the rights of Christians are violated. And I called on the international community to create a mechanism of defense of Christians in the Middle East, in particular, and in other countries as well. And this mechanism should involve the granting of political support or economic aide only in exchange for guarantees for Christian minorities.
Some people are looking at Syria and drawing parallels to Kosovo or Northern Cyprus, places where Christianity is in danger of being destroyed or has disappeared altogether.
Yes. Kosovo is another example of the negligence of the Christian population because politicians had their own political goals, which they achieved with the separation of Kosovo from Serbia. But the result for the Christian population was disastrous. I visited Kosovo twice, and I must say that Christians simply left this region. And those who remain, they live in very difficult conditions. For example, I visited one Orthodox Church in Kosovo where four ladies live under the protection of the guards. One lady has her house across the street. For the last four years she could not visit her house even once, because as soon as she leaves the compound, she will lose the protection and she is likely to be killed.
A question about your visit to the Roman Catholic synod of bishops in October 2012, which Pope Benedict called to talk about the New Evangelization. The message out of this gathering, according to news reports, was that despite the growth of secularism, increased hostility towards Christianity, and sinful behavior by some church members, there is cause for real optimism about the future because of Christ's promises of salvation. Do you see Rome's New Evangelization project as a positive development for all Christians in Western Europe? And are you personally optimistic about the future in light of Christ's promise to us?
I think the church has survived in very different circumstances across the 2,000 years of its existence. And, yes, I am optimistic in the terms of Christ's promise to the church that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church.
Patriarch Kirill, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, left, and head of Poland’s Roman Catholic church archbishop Jozef Michalik shake hands after talks in Warsaw, Poland
As we saw in Russia?
We saw it in Russia. We saw it in many places. And in this way I'm optimistic, because I believe that Christ continues to lead His church, that the Holy Spirit continues to vivify it. If we take the example of Russia, we see that the revival of the church is very noticeable. It is unprecedented in scale. And we see that many new people come to church. I'll give you another example. People in the West very often complain about the shortage of vocations to the priesthood and monastic life. Twenty five years ago we had, in the Russian Church, 18 monasteries. Now, we have more than 800 monasteries. So almost 800 new monasteries were built or old monasteries were restarted, and all of them are filled with monks and nuns, mostly young people. This indicates that there is no such thing as a post-Christian epoch of which some people in the West are talking. You just come to Russia, to the Ukraine, you visit these monasteries, you visit our theological schools, and you will see that the church is flourishing. And I believe that even if, in some places, the church may seem to be in decline, it will always be flourishing in some other places.
In one of your essays, you say that "militant secularism becomes as dangerous for religion as militant atheism." Are there parallels, contrasts between an aggressive secularism, sometimes advanced by government policies, and the state-sponsored atheism of former communist regimes?
Well, as I was speaking about the danger of militant secularism, I was first and foremost referring to the processes, which are going on in Western liberal society and which affect many Christians. Because, for example, the ideology which is now prevailing in secular society and the social discourse in relations between the church and the state is basically the one which does not allow any public exposure of the church, any kind of visible role of the church in the public sphere. Secularism tolerates the church as long as it is hidden behind the walls of parishes or family homes, but it denies the right of the church to be present in the public domain, to have voice in social affairs and political life. One of the examples is the constant dissatisfaction with the presence of Christian symbols in public places. The notorious case of Lautsi v. Italy is but one example of this, one of many. So we, in the Russian Orthodox Church, believe that secularism and atheism cannot be a common denominator for all religious trends, for all world views. We should be a multi-polar society where representatives of all religions can live peacefully and can live according to their faith and where they can also freely express their views and positions.
Metropolitan Hilarion chats with Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier at the Vatican during the inauguration of Pope Francis
I'd like to close with a question about ecumenical relations. You spoke earlier here at Nashotah House about your warm feelings for traditionalist Anglicans, but also about the drift away from tradition as you see it in the wider Episcopal Church. How would you describe the state of inter- Christian relations with Protestants and Roman Catholics vis-a-vis the Moscow Patriarchate?
I think the whole field of ecumenical relations can be divided into two major sectors—for us at least. One is the relations between the Orthodox and the Catholics. And another one is the relations between Orthodox on the one hand and the Protestants—Anglicans, Baptists, and others. And here I see two very different tendencies. With regards to Orthodox-Catholic relations, I see that generally, on the worldwide level, these relations are constantly improving and that there is a sense of rapprochement between the two traditions. We more and more realize that we are not competing structures but that we are allies in the process of evangelization and the mission. We don't have many common missionary projects, but we have a similar missionary strategy and I think we, in spite of certain differences in theology, essentially are united on all social and moral issues. And this provides us with the possibility to form a common front to defend traditional Christianity, in particular against the challenges of militant secularism and atheism.
With regards to Anglican and Protestant communities, of course the situation is very different. In many Protestant communities of the West and of the North, the process of liberalization has gone very far. And we can no longer regard these communities as representing the authentic church tradition. On the contrary, we see that theological teaching, moral teaching, as well as church order is gravely affected in these communities by liberal trends. And with some of them we have to break relations. For example, we had to break the dialogue with the Episcopal Church of the USA in 2003 in spite of the fact that we had been in dialogue with this church for over 30 years. We had to suspend this dialogue because of the unacceptable events happening in this church, in particular the ordination of an openly-practicing homosexual into the episcopate. And we are now more involved in dialogue with the conservative wing of the Episcopal Church, in particular with the newly formed Anglican Church of North America, with the representatives of whom I met here at Nashotah House. And I believe that we will continue to support them.
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