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Is Russia's intervention in Syria a 'holy war'? Russian Orthodox Church: 'yes'

The church fully supports the Kremlin's decision to intervene in Syria, both as a 'war on terrorism' and to protect Middle Eastern Christians it sees as its responsibility.

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    Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin speaks during a rally in support of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill in Moscow in July 2012.
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For many in the West, the idea that a church would take an overtly hawkish stance in the conflict in Syria is an utterly foreign concept.

But then, the Russian Orthodox Church is not of the West, says Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, the church's most recognizable spokesperson, in his spartan downtown Moscow office.

"The idea that church and state should be alienated from each other is not a characteristic of Orthodox civilization," insists the wispy-bearded senior cleric, whose eyes almost seem to burn. "It's a characteristic of the West."

Not well known or understood in the West, the Russian Orthodox Church has been Russia's chief source of spiritual identity for most of its 1,000-year existence. Though it was nearly destroyed by the communists, it has since rebounded sharply to become once again the Kremlin's ideological bulwark.

As that relationship has solidified, the church has also integrated with the military.  Russian media frequently run photos of priests blessing weaponry, including war planes, while Orthodox chaplains are embedded in most military units. And now, it is underscoring its enthusiastic backing for Russia's military intervention in Syria – a fight Father Chaplin dramatically describes as "a holy war against terrorism."

"Russia has been attacked [by terrorists] many times," says Chaplain. "This is not a religious war, not a Christian-Muslim conflict, but for us, the struggle against terrorism definitely has a spiritual dimension."

The 'Third Rome'

The Orthodox Church, which has deep historical connections with the dwindling Christian communities of the Middle East, was deeply alarmed by mass flight of Iraq's Christians following the US invasion of that country. When the conflict in Syria began almost five years ago, the church began lobbying the Kremlin to take a strong stand in defense of Syrian Christians, who are about 10 percent of the population. Experts say the church's insistence certainly played a role in President Vladimir Putin's decision to intervene directly in the conflict.

Christianity came to Russia via Byzantium, the eastern half of the old Roman Empire, which survived until the Muslim Turks overran it almost 600 years ago. The Russian Orthodox Church subsequently took up the mantle of eastern Christianity, and Moscow styled itself as the "Third Rome" with a special duty to protect the faithful of the Middle East, now living under Muslim rule. An 1853 proclamation by Czar Nicholas I claiming Russia's right to support Christians living in the Turkish Ottoman empire – which then included Syria and the Holy Land – actually precipitated the Crimean War, which pitted Russia against Turkey, Britain, and France.

"Russian czars and church for centuries maintained close relations with Middle Eastern Christians, and declared the right to support them. That's part of our historical consciousness," says Iosif Diskin, chair of the inter-religious affairs commission of the Russian Public Chamber, a semi-official civil society assembly. "But today it's not just the church, but much of Russian society that has become agitated about the fate of Christian minorities in Syria."

It's difficult to gauge how much the church's vocal support accounts for the public's backing of the war. But polls show that nearly two months into the Russian intervention, more than half still back the air war, though more than two-thirds say they would oppose sending in Russian ground troops.

"The level of trust in the church is very high," says Grigory Kertman, an expert with the state-linked Public Opinion Foundation. "It's not only religious people who say they trust the church, but even non-believers" tend to view it as a positive force in society.

'The origin and end of things'

When asked by pollsters, Russians overwhelmingly aver to be religious believers; in fact, over 80 percent say so. About 70 percent of Russians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. The remainder come from one of the constitutionally-defined "founding" religions of Russia: Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism.

Few Russians bother to go to church on a regular basis. Chaplin says it's as many as 30 percent, other experts say the figure is more like 5 percent.

Whether they go to church or not, Chaplin argues, religious faith does shape people's consciousness, particularly with regard to the Middle East. "Many Christians, not just Russians, see the Middle East as the crossroads of world history, as the origin and end of things," he says. "There is a very deep interest in things that happen there."

The church maintains dialogue with Russia's other religious minorities about the war in Syria through the country's official inter-religious council and other avenues. Chaplin insists that they are all on the same page about the threat posed by Islamist extremism and the need to fight it.

The recent downing of a Russian airliner by a terrorist bomb over Sinai is a terrible tragedy, he adds, but it will not change the course. "It's not possible to fight the war against terror as if it were a computer game. It's a real war, and it will not go on without losses," he says. "This fight has become the reality of our times."

A church, speaking out

Chaplin denies the church is seeking to return to its czarist-era role as main arbiter of state ideology. But he does admit that the church openly lobbies for policies it wants: not just the war in Syria, but issues closer to home, such as abortion, religious teaching in schools, and the "wayward mores" of Russian women. The church demonstrated its political muscle recently by compelling the Kremlin to postpone a lavish state burial of members of the last czar's family over clerical doubts about the authenticity of the royal remains.

Under Putin the state has bent over backward to accommodate the church, handing over thousands of religious buildings and artifacts confiscated by the former Soviet Union, including many architectural gems, some of which had been state-run museums for decades.

Dozens of public organizations have sprung up to carry the church's views into public political debate, and their activities contribute to the growing conservative shift in Russian society on issues as diverse as LGBT rights and artistic standards.

"Some people say the church is only about matters concerning clergy, and should not speak out on secular issues," says Chaplin. "But we have overcome that Soviet legacy."

Critics say that whether the issue is war in Syria, or priests running hospitals, the growing political clout of the church is a big source of worry.

"In most of Russian history, the church was junior partner of the state, and served the state's interests. It's starting to look a lot like that again," says Nikolai Svanidze, a historian and leading TV personality.

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