From Crux’s John Allen, here is an interesting and provocative article on today’s scheduled meeting between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Pope Francis. Surprisingly, Allen writes, on some issues the two men have “forged an improbably strong partnership.”

One of those issues is the persecution of Mideast Christians. While western nations have temporized, refusing even to acknowledge the sectarian dimension of the crisis—ISIS’s actions have nothing to do with religion, apparently—Putin has made himself the champion of the region’s Christians:

“As regards the Middle East and its Christians, their situation is dire,” Putin said in April. “The international community is not doing enough . . . this is the motherland of Christians. Christians have lived there from time immemorial, for thousands of years.”

In some corners of the Middle East, such as the Syrian region of Qualamun, Russia actually has floated the idea of granting citizenship to pockets of Orthodox Christians, effectively offering them a security blanket.

Now, talk is cheap. And Putin’s motivations are not necessarily humanitarian. By offering itself as the protector of Mideast Christians, most of whom are Orthodox, Russia can exert influence in the region. (France has traditionally put itself forward in the same role, although France tends to focus on Catholics.) Speaking out for Christian minorities also aligns with Putin’s self-description as the representative of traditional Christianity, which no doubt wins him admirers in the developing world, where Christianity is expanding, often in conflict with a rising Islam. And, of course, championing the cause of Orthodox Christians increases his political appeal in Russia itself.

Still, whatever his motives, Putin has focused on the suffering of Christians as Christians, and that is something many leaders in the West are apparently reluctant to do. It is also a stance, Allen writes, that appeals to Pope Francis:

Since Francis’ election in March 2013, meanwhile, no social or political issue has engaged the pontiff like the plight of persecuted Christians, especially in the Middle East.

In March, he demanded that the world stop trying to “hide” the reality of anti-Christian violence, and he’s also argued that the shared suffering of Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants alike is the basis for a contemporary “ecumenism of blood.”

Allen notes that the conflict in Ukraine will pose obstacles for any real partnership between Russia and the Vatican. Ukrainian Catholics believe that Pope Francis has taken too soft a line in that particular crisis. Francis has described the conflict as an unfortunate disagreement between Christians, while Ukrainian Catholics (as well as Protestants and some Orthodox) tend to see it as the result of Russian provocation, which they wish Francis would denounce. In particular, Ukrainian Catholics resent what they see as bullying and duplicity on the part of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly the Moscow Patriarchate, topics frequently covered here at First Things.

As I say, an interesting and provocative piece. 

Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.

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