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Mideast Christians See Russia–not the US–as Defender of their Faith


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Image: John Holcroft

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.”


Update from Mhardeh, Syria

In my recent article for Christianity Today, I described one of the strategies Middle Eastern Christians are employing to face the threat from ISIS: Fight.

Sometimes, though, talking isn’t enough. This reality has driven Syrian pastor Maan Bitar to urge his congregation to take up arms and fight. His Presbyterian congregation is among the 22,000 all-Christian residents of Mhardeh in Syria. Their city is besieged by Islamist militants.

Mhardeh is shelled every day, Bitar said, killing at least 50 civilians and injuring hundreds more. The city’s Christians, alongside government forces, have so far been successful in preventing the militants from entering the city.

“I know I have the right as a human being to defend myself,” he said, “but I try to give my people a Christian justification.… Still, if I kill someone I need to say to Jesus, ‘I know I have sinned. I have not met your perfection.’”

This above article is recently updated based on an email received from Rev. Bitar. Here is his message in its entirety:

The city is besieged by FSA and Al Nusra, who drove away the civilian population of the neighboring villages to take over Mhardeh and make it their stronghold to fight the regular army from Mhardeh.

Now Mhardeh is shelled everyday by the Syrian rebels and Al Nusra fighters who have given dozens [of] ultimatums [and] threats: Leave your homes. Mhardeh is ours. It’s Halal (permissible under Islamic Sharia to conquer).

Mehardeh has been hit so far by 1500 mortar shells and rockets. The death toll of civilians has exceeded 50, and there are hundreds of injured, among the deaths and injured [are] women and children. Sometimes rockets are deliberately launched when school children are leaving school.

The Syrian regular army, with Mhardeh civil defense and volunteers, has prevented them from invading Mhardeh and has driven them away, and now it is targeting their strategic positions in other farther towns. However, they number [in the] thousands and are intent on causing much harm and damage to [the] Mhardeh population and town.