Katrina Lantos Swett Friday, January 01, 2016
With the passing of Christmas and on this the start of the New Year, Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to convince many Americans and other Westerners that he is a staunch defender of Christians against their oppressors, most recently ISIS in Syria.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. From Iraq and Syria to Crimea, Ukraine, and Russia itself, the Kremlin’s behavior belies such rhetoric. For the sake of Christians and others persecuted for their faith, it is time to rid ourselves of this myth.
At best, Putin’s regime has been an unreliable ally of Christians. At worst, it has persecuted Christians, at home and abroad, especially those who do not belong to the country’s dominant religious and cultural — and some say political — institution, the Russian Orthodox Church’s Moscow Patriarchate.
This is hardly surprising, given that the former KGB official once deemed the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of religion’s most lethal enemies, “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century.” Putin has cynically used concern about Christians to revive as much of the old Soviet empire as possible and to restore Russia’s Soviet-era influence over the Middle East.
In Iraq, Putin has done little about the slaughter and enslavement of Christians by ISIS and like-minded radical Islamist terrorist groups.
In Syria, he has spoken about saving Christians from ISIS, but his actions contradict his words. His air force has launched bombing raids — not primarily against ISIS, but against civilians and armed opposition groups who pose the biggest threat to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s reign. Clearly, Putin puts Assad’s regime above the well-being of Christians.
Since seizing control of Crimea last year, Russia has put increasing pressure on churches and leaders not affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate. In June 2014, the leader of the Salvation Army in Crimea left the peninsula after reporting repeated harassment by security agents. By late 2014, clergy without Russian citizenship, particularly Greek and Roman Catholics and those belonging to the Kiev Patriarchate, were forced to leave Crimea. The home of the Kiev Patriarchate’s bishop of Simferopol and Crimea, Klyment Kushch, was burned down. Russia also has applied its notorious registration and anti-extremist laws to Crimeans, including Orthodox adherents who are not Moscow Patriarchate members.
Pro-Russian forces have visited similar abuses on communities in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine after Russian-backed paramilitary groups seized territory.
Even within Russia itself, Christians are hardly safe from Putin’s repression. From Baptists to Charismatics to Adventists, Russian Protestants may be denied permits to build churches, as well as visas for foreign missionaries According to some estimates, for every registered Protestant congregation, there are at least two unregistered ones, as Russian authorities often discriminate against such congregations through the religious registration law. Some of these church members, along with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, are deemed “extremist” under Russia’s overly broad anti-extremism law, some for simply opposing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
The conclusion could not be more obvious: As evidenced by his sins of commission and omission, Vladimir Putin is no friend of Christians. It is time for Christians and all people of goodwill to pay heed.
Katrina Lantos Swett, a New Hampshire resident, is president and CEO of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice.