Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Sergey Lavrov, says the peaceful co-existence of different religious groups in the Middle East, and particularly safeguarding the future of Christians, is one of Russia’s policy goals for the region.
He was speaking at the third Mediterranean Dialogues summit in Rome on 1 and 2 December, where participants discussed some of the region’s key issues: migration, terrorism and development.
“The future of Christians in the Middle East is very important,” he said, adding that Christian minorities had “suffered the most” under the violence unleashed by the Islamic State group, and the exodus that followed.
Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin told the Bishops’ Council in Moscow on 1 December that he hopes the Russian Orthodox Church will play a key role in advocating for and supporting Syria’s population in rebuilding their nation.
Aid from the international community has been slow to arrive, and NGOs and churches have been forced to step in. According to Crux, three major Churches in Iraq, for example, have formed a committee to work together.
World Watch Monitor previously also highlighted some of the initiatives set up to support Christians eager to rebuild their homes, and the ways in which IDPs (internally displaced people) have sought to support themselves.
“If we allow Syria to fall apart, as some outside players I believe wouldn’t mind, then it would reverberate all over the region in a very bad way,” Lavrov told the Rome conference.
Archbishop Darwish of Zahle and Furwol, whose diocese is helping to look after Syrian refugees, including many Christians, said last month that Western media did not understand what was going on in Syria or Iraq.
“The government of Syria protects Christians and other minorities. We need [Western nations] to attend dialogue and put in place a programme of peace in the Middle East,” he said, describing the Syrian conflict as being between “the Syrian regime and Western governments”.
Meanwhile US Vice President Mike Pence is preparing for a visit to the Middle East later this month. In October he announced the US State Department would favour “faith-based groups” and the US Agency for International Development over “ineffective” UN relief efforts in assisting persecuted Christians and other minorities.
Although Christians have slowly started to return to their homes after the ousting of Islamic State, threats remain. There is still a lack of security and the costs of rebuilding are high.
Also, in Iraq tensions between Bagdad and the Kurdish government could further drain the region of Christians. Stephen Rasche, legal counsel for the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil, told World Watch Monitor in October that sustained fighting in the region would result in Christians in northern Iraq fleeing again to escape the renewed insecurity.
A report on Christians’ movements in the Middle East, published in June, estimated that 50-80% of the Christian populations of Iraq and Syria had left since the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, adding that many have no desire to return.