On the sidelines of the 2nd Athens Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East, Hilarion Alfeyev, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations and a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow spoke to journalists about the situation of Christians, in the Middle East. The there ongoing crisis and the result of the non-ending conflicts (mainly) in Syria and Iraq have not left His Eminence indifferent or unmoved. Every time he gets the chance, Metropolitan Hilarion speaks of the disastrous consequences of the present crisis and reminds us all that racial and religious bigotry is harmful and could cause nothing but disaster.
At the Conference you spoke of the role of the Russian army and said that it was them (the soldiers) who practically liberated Syria from the terrorists. How do you see the restoration of Syria in the near future, the role of Russia as well as the role of the Orthodox Church in this?
At this conference, as a representative of the Church, I spoke first of all about the situation in which Christians are in Syria, Iraq and the Middle East in general. And I said that, after the terrorists have been completely expelled from Syria, and I hope that this will happen very soon and explained how it would and why terrorists are losing ground there –it is thanks to the Russian army- the international community will face a huge task to restore the infrastructure of this country. And for me, as a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, the fate of Christians in the Middle East is of particular concern.
And I said that, in order for Christians to return to their native places, it is necessary to ensure, firstly, the early restoration of churches, monasteries and shrines destroyed by the war, and, secondly, to restore, and maybe re-build houses for them. Because if they have no place to return to, if there are no houses, if there is no infrastructure, with schools and hospitals not in a state to be used, then we can not hope that Christians will be able to return.
The Russian army liberated Syria almost completely. Are there any new data on the two metropolitans who were abducted in Aleppo in 2013?
Unfortunately, we do not have any reliable information about their fate.
What is the situation with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church now? Have you discussed the position of the Greek church, the Patriarchate of Constantinople? As far as I know, the American archbishops are pressing very hard on Patriarch Bartholomew to acknowledge the illegal “Kyiv Patriarchate”.
Patriarch Bartholomew, like all other heads of local Orthodox churches, takes a firm canonical position, and this position can not be different. Based on this position, the schism is a split, and for the return to the church, it is necessary that schism supporters show repentance. There is no other form of recognition of the schism, according to what the church knows and knew in the past, too.
Right now, how do you assess the situation in Ukraine with our Orthodox parishes?
At the moment, the situation is quite complicated, because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is under constant pressure from the state, which does not hide its goals for its destruction. This is manifested, in particular, in those bills that are proposed for consideration by the Verkhovna Rada (the unicameral parliament of Ukraine) – these bills are discriminatory, and also in the pressure exerted on the canonical church on the ground. But I must say that the church stands firm. And we remember the Savior’s promise that “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Therefore, the response of the church to persecution is that it will continue to serve its God.
The issue of the protection of Christians in the Middle East was addressed at the conference. What is the role of dialogue with the Muslim leaders?
I think that the role of dialogue with leaders of the Muslim communities is very important. We, in Russia, are conducting such a dialogue constantly. We have an organisation called the Inter-religious Council of Russia. Just a couple of days ago, another meeting of this organisation took place, and inter-religious dialogue today is of special significance. But we must remember that terrorists are people who do not enter into a dialogue, who do not want dialogue, do not need dialogue, and, unfortunately, the only dialogue that can be successfully held with them all is dialogue with weapons. This is the same dialogue that is currently being conducted in Syria by the Russian army. But we must also understand that terrorism and extremism are ideologies that conquer the minds of young people for various reasons. And it is very important that we work so as to prevent the spread of this corrupting influence of the terrorist ideology among our youth, among the students.
And here, finally, the role of inter-religious dialogue is indeed great just like the role of education. People often become adherents of terrorism because they do not know the teachings of Islam well, they do not know even their own religious traditions and, being religiously illiterate, makes them easy prey to (religious) agitators of terrorist organizations.
A subject of great interest to His Eminence
A few days ago, on October 10, 2017 while speaking at the opening of the international consultation in Budapest on the persecution of Christians, under the title “Finding the appropriate answers to a long neglected crisis”, Metropolitan Hilarion mentioned Christianity again, highlighting the difficulties Christians undergo, especially in turbulent Middle East.
“Today, Christians are suffering throughout many regions of the world. However, the most dramatic situation has come about in the Middle East and in a number of African countries.
There can be no doubt that the further shrinking of the Christian presence in the Middle East will be a genuine catastrophe for civilization. Western civilisation has its roots in Christianity, and Christianity itself in its turn originated in the Middle East.”
The recent past
According to mospat.ru, Metropolitan Hilarion had devoted his 2015 presentation “to the disastrous state of Christians in the Middle East. His Eminence gave concrete examples of the elimination or considerable reduction of the Christian presence in several countries as a result of extremists’ actions. He reminded the assembly that the loss of the Christian presence in the Middle East will have irrevocable consequences. In conclusion of his presentation, Metropolitan Hilarion stressed, ‘We hope that the world can draw a lesson from the most wide-scale humanitarian tragedy of recent years. We call upon politicians, who bear responsibility for what is happening, to make all efforts to defend Christians and guarantee the return to their homes and to the lands of which they are native inhabitants’.”