The Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury have called for more aid to reach Middle Eastern refugees, especially Christians, and for robust safeguards against extremist ideology, which they say has spread “like an epidemic”.

Archbishop Welby and Patriarch Kirill voiced shared concerns for Middle Eastern Christians

Patriarch Kirill and Archbishop Justin Welby released a joint statement thanking God for the opportunity “to with one voice before the entire world bear witness to our brothers and sisters who are persecuted for faith in Christ”.

In their statement, released on Wednesday (22 Nov), the second day of the Anglican leader’s unprecedented three-day trip to Russia, they said: “We appeal to the international community to render speedy help to support the Christian and other populations of the Middle East. Wide-scale humanitarian aid is needed for those who are suffering and for the vast numbers of [refugees], including those who have ended up in Europe and America.”

They also called for “preventative measures against the ideology of extremism that has spread throughout the world under the influence of militants like an epidemic,” and urged religious and political leaders to devise an effective response. “An important aspect of this co-operation is interreligious dialogue,” they added.

“In many countries of the Middle East and Africa there is persecution of Christians, manifested in mass killings, the barbaric destruction of churches, the desecration of holy sites and the expulsion of millions of people from their homes,” they wrote.

Referring to the Middle East they voiced concern at rapid emigration of Christians as well as “more subtle forms of discrimination where life is made so difficult that it is easier for them to leave their ancient homeland than to stay”.

Christians contemplating returning to their homes would need “guarantees of security, the restoration of the social infrastructure and living accommodation, the setting up of conditions for clergy to carry out their ministry and the restoration of destroyed churches”, they said.

This week’s visit by Welby and a delegation from his Lambeth Palace residence comes just over a year after the Patriarch visited Britain, where he was received by the Queen and by Archbishop Welby. At that time, Coptic Orthodox Bishop Angaelos said the Russian Orthodox believed its suppression under Soviet rule had given it a vocation to speak up for Christians who are being persecuted.

However, critics have voiced concern at the Russian Orthodox Church’s close relationship with President Vladimir Putin.

Bishop Hlib Lonchyna of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy in London told World Watch Monitor that President Putin “often instrumentalises the position or problems of Christians for his own political purposes”. While the Orthodox Church is favoured within the Russia Federation, other Churches and denominations face restrictions.

The British Government has accused Russia of “covering up” for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after he was accused of carrying out chemical weapons attacks, but many Syrian church leaders regard Assad as a protector of Christians and the country’s other minority communities against radical Islamists.

A journalist from the UK’s Times newspaper, who has been travelling with the Anglican delegation, reported today (23 November) that “there was no Russian attempt to introduce politics into the talks”. Critics have expressed fears that the Russian Patriarch might attempt to draw Archbishop Welby into endorsing a Russian agenda on a number of broader issues.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said last month that Britain had “deep differences deep differences with Russia, in particular over Syria and Ukraine, including the Russian Government’s illegal annexation of Crimea”. In a statement confirming his plans to visit his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Moscow later this year, the UK’s Foreign Office said the two men would nonetheless discuss “regional stability in the Middle East, and containing threats to international peace”.