The Middle East is once again demonstrating its international geopolitical and geostrategic centrality at the intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. This is shown by the start of Russian intervention and airstrikes in Syria, but also by the forces of the Western coalition, the Chinese navy, without mentioning the consequent regional military forces of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and so on. This center of the world that is the Middle East constitutes a strategic crossroads of influences that pivot on a central geopolitical line of three B’s– Berlin, Byzantium and Baghdad– that can cut the world in two.Since the earliest times, this center has not ceased to be a crucible where the appetites of the great powers manifest themselves, meet and kill each other.
Today, the confrontation between all these powers that are gathering in the Eastern Mediterranean around the Syrian conflict, raging in this threatened and threatening region, is at its peak under “open skies”. An impressive deployment of fleets, friendly or hostile, that are concentrating unprecedented military resources, whether logistical, intelligence-gathering or command posts. A theater of operations where nations and their most divergent interests oppose each other and where the most voracious passions and tensions are growing. A veritable inferno stoked by explosive regional and international embers, threatening the region with general conflagration at any moment.
There is, of course, the context of the internal Syrian conflict, but also the conflict against Syria. There is also the regional context of an Arab world imploding from within with nation-states long dominated by dictatorships and draconian autocracies. Nations-states of the Arab world that were unable to remedy the situation with a liberating Arab Spring are today decaying and giving way to a vacuum that is being filled by an extreme religious radicalism that gleefully wields unspeakable terror on a regional and international level and does not hesitate to reawaken all the old demons. Thus it reawakens and stirs up at will the old internecine wars of Islam, between Shiites and Sunnis. Thus it exploits the sacred for political purposes without restraint and disenters the old demons of the historical subconscious of this region that is still traumatized by the memory of the Crusades and colonialism, associating the Western coalition fighting it with the Crusaders.
Entering into this powder-keg context a few days ago came a communication from the spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate, Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, commenting on the military operations that his country has commenced in Syria from the point of view of the Russian Orthodox Church. These statements were repeated, commented upon and crossed the world like lightening, launching a war of the airwaves. Some did not hesitate to carry over into his comments a language of “holy war”, while for others it was not a question of “holy war” but of a fight against terrorism that the spokesman described as a holy struggle. In any case, the unfortunate statements which were corrected by a subsequent declaration by His Holiness Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow, provoked a terrible shokewave and over-excitement in the media, on social networks, and in public opinion both East and West, with extreme opposing reactions of approval and disapproval, with some not hesitating to compare the Russian deployment to a Muscovite crusade in the manner of ISIS.
Clearly, this unfortunate incident highlights the risky nature of any attempt to use the sacred in the current explosive context of the Middle East, something that can only unleash murderous passions. More than ever, we must pay attention to the power of the words that we use because words, in our world of digital revolution, are weapons that kill long before the guns kill! More than ever, churches must maintain a positive distance from these risks in order to avoid any unfortunate amalgam that could result when the interests of nations and powers are at play. More than ever, churches must keep intact their fundamental capacity, in accord with their evangelical mission, to act intelligently and courageously for peace and reconciliation.
No, there is not nor can there be in Orthodoxy any theological, strategic or tactical legitimization of war, even if it is described according to the situation and the era as “holy”, “just”, “justified” or “justifiable”. Clearly, for every Orthodox Christian, every war is reprehensible and should be condemned because they are and only can be the expression of evil in the world. War is at once a failure and an evil. The Lord reminds us in Matthew 26:52-53, “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” Did Christ not have the possibility of calling upon legions of angels to save Himself from death? His Church is called in every era and according to the specifics of every situation, to intelligently and sometimes pragmatically follow His absolute Model and One Thing Needful, remembering that true “holy war” is that which is invisible, spiritual warfare, the pnevmatikos polemos that Saint John Chrysostom so often mentioned in his homilies.
I will conclude by evoking the words of the late Patriarch Pavle of Serbia who reposed in 2009, a saint of our time, who in his time as patriarch during the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, had to face the terrible trials of war and the irrational and murderous passions that it unleashes. His teaching to his own flock was always imbued with the spiritual tension that the Christian must keep within himself in order to “remain human even amidst those who are not.”
“It is our responsibility,” he said,”to do everything in order to be really prepared, even among wolves, to be Christ’s sheep. God sends us so that through our life and our faith we may lead the wolves to become, if they so desire, Christ’s sheep. But, in any case, the most important thing is that we do not become wolves. This principle will allow us to subsist both biologically and morally. And if we must disappear, we accept to disappear, all while remaining human to the end.”
In the Fall of 1992, he had to intervene with the Serbian population of Eastern Bosnia so that they would let through a humanitarian convoy bound for the Muslims of Sebrenica. It was in these eloquent terms that speak for themselves that he addressed them: “It is as a father that I beg the Serbs of the Drina region to clear the way for the international humanitarian aid convoy bound for Sebrenica. Even if you think that this aid is more necessary for yourselves and your suffering families, it is better to suffer injustice for the moment than to inflict it yourselves on others, on your brothers of a different religion who are just as miserable as you. Let us all be human beings, children of God, and let us have more trust in His justice than in our own anger, however justified it may seem. In the name of the evangelical love of God and of our Holy Church who teaches it, I send you my blessing with faith that aid will also arrive to relieve your suffering, insofar as crime does not respond to crime, and that before the most terrible trials we may behave as a Christian people, the heirs of Saint Sava.”