This article was first published in the July print edition of Christianity Today.
War was swirling in Syria. Rebels were pressing. And Maan Bitar was the only hope for American help.
“Because I am evangelical, everyone thinks I have channels of communication,” said the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Mhardeh. “Syrians believe the United States has the power to stop the conflict—if it wants to.”
In the early years of the civil war, Bitar’s Orthodox neighbors were desperate to convince the US and its allies to end support of rebel forces. Mhardeh, a Christian city 165 miles north of Damascus, was being shelled regularly from across the Orontes River.
But salvation came from a different source. Russian airpower turned the tide, and Syrian government-aligned troops drove the rebels from the area.
Russian intervention on behalf of Mideast Christians has pricked the conscience of many American evangelicals. Long conditioned to Cold War enmity, the question is entertained: Are they the good guys in the cradle of Christianity? Or are persecuted Christians just a handy excuse for political interests?
“The news tells us Russian troops are bringing peace to the region, said Vitaly Vlasenko, ambassador-at-large for the Russian Evangelical Alliance. “Maybe this is propaganda, but we don’t hear anything else.”
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But here also is testimony from Egypt, unfortunately cut due to word count:
“If Russia helps anyone to save them from death and danger [in Syria], we welcome this,” said Boules Halim, spokesman for the Coptic Orthodox Church. “Not just for Christians, but for humanity.”
Halim had no comment on Russian political developments with Egypt. But despite technically not being in communion over disagreements with the fifth-century Chalcedonian Creed, relations with the Russian Orthodox Church are growing increasingly strong.
Pope Tawadros has met Putin. Theological students are being exchanged. Russian monks are touring Egyptian monasteries.
“We are coming together in dialogue,” Halim said. “Better communication leads to better understanding.”