How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
With so many millions of Syrians fleeing their war-torn country, there has been little attention on those who are desperate to remain in their homeland: Syria’s Christian minority, who believe it is an existential requirement to maintain over 2,000 years of faith in the region. At the height of the debate over refugee resettlement, when many Western clerics were lobbying Europe to absorb more people, an archbishop in Aleppo pled with his brethren to help his parishioners remain in Syria. Like most Christian leaders in the Middle East, he favors a political solution to the conflict, going so far as to laud the Russian military intervention in Syria for giving residents enough hope to stay on. In Syria, Christians have largely survived under the protection of the Syrian Army. Those outside Damascus have been persecuted by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and by various militias trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is no wonder that they feel their survival rests on keeping Assad in power.
As Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart explained to the BBC in October, “For the time being, if Assad goes now, there is fear that everything may collapse and there will be something terrible everywhere in the country.” Jeanbart’s view reflects the Vatican’s sentiments on Assad, too; it understands that Russia and Iran are critical actors in not only resolving the ongoing war, but also securing the faith’s regional survival. The Holy See’s ties with Russia are stronger than ever and Rome and Tehran’s 30 years of quiet engagement has deepened over the last two years to the point that Vatican experts refer to a “Shiite option” when discussing papal diplomacy. Today, Iranians can even read Saint Augustine’s Confessions and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in Farsi—the product of a 12-year translation effort by Iranian scholars.
THE POPE ON SYRIA
Pope Francis’ direct involvement in Syria began in 2013 when it appeared that Assad might have used chemical weapons against his own people. The United States was mulling a decision on whether to launch airstrikes against the regime. In September, Francis called for a global day of prayer for Syria as it disintegrated further into chaos. Alongside the vigil, the Vatican briefed some 70 ambassadors on the pope’s position—that an intervention would only exacerbate the conflict and that a peaceful resolution should be sought. Francis also wrote a letter to members of the G-20, then convened in Russia, arguing that a military intervention was futile. When the United States chose not to intervene and to instead, transfer Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal to an international body, the Holy See looked like a lion-slayer. The move created a bond between the pope and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also interested in protecting Christians in the Middle East. The two have since coordinated efforts to deliver humanitarian aid.
Iran, too, expressed admiration for the way the pope headed off airstrikes in Syria. In early 2014, Iran’s ambassador to the Holy See called Francis “a virtuous figure…brimming with morality and modesty, and the Iranian people expect him to resist oppressors and the powerful, with divine help, just like Jesus Christ.”
As for the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, it sees Iran as an indispensable player that can bring about an end to the Syrian conflict. “Iran is an integral part of the…negotiation that can lead to peace or, at least, the immediate cessation of violence in the Middle East…in particular, with regard to Syria,” said the pope’s representative to the United Nations Office at Geneva. In fact, at the end of November, the Vatican consecrated Bishop Sarkis Davidian to serve Armenian Catholics in Isfahan, Iran—a post vacant since 2005. Davidian was born in Aleppo, one of the largest Christian cities in the Middle East until the war. He says his mission is to “cooperate for peace,” which means negotiating with key regional players like Iran, which supports the Assad regime, and is also a trusted protector of its own Christian minority.
The Iranian Constitution gives Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians rights to worship freely, and assigns Christians three seats in parliament. Leaders of the biggest local Christian communities within Iran say they feel safe. Armenian Orthodox Archbishop Babken Charian noted earlier this year, “The religious minorities have friendly relations with the Muslims in Iran and if the people of the world had a peaceful morale like the Iranians have, the world would be in peace and tranquility.”
IRAN AND THE HOLY SEE
Although Iran and the Holy See have recently become closer, the two established diplomatic relations in 1954, which the Vatican continued to maintain even after the Islamic Revolution. Scholar Sasan Tavassoli writes that after 1979, some prominent imams increasingly promoted inter-religious dialogue. They pointed out passages in the Koran that accept religious pluralism, frequently referenced the life and teachings of Jesus, and noted the tradition of rational discourse between Shiite imams and Christian leaders.
Although it was not greatly publicized, the Islamic Republic of Iran began prioritizing engagement with Christian churches in 1992, when Shiite clerics held their first interfaith meeting in Athens with the Greek Orthodox Church. Although the Greek community in Iran is miniscule (the Armenian Apostolic Church, part of the Oriental Orthodox family, is the largest Christian church there and has 300,000 members), Iranian thinkers admire the Orthodox Church for maintaining traditional values and identity in the face of Western-driven globalization. In 1985, during the devastating Iran–Iraq War, Iran invited the first Western theologian, the Swiss Catholic priest Hans Küng, to exchange views with his Muslim counterparts. Küng was impressed to see ayatollahs, state officials, and even family members of then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini attend his seminar. He wrote at the time, “‘Instead of dispute, dialogue.’ This is the astounding phrase that I heard in Tehran. I am convinced it is primarily religiously motivated, that it will persist…and that it will bear fruit.”
Enthusiasm for dialogue with Christians did, indeed, persist. In 1995, the Islamic Culture and Relations Organization sponsored its first discussion with the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (which resulted in a commitment to meet every two years) and the World Council of Churches, which also initiated regular meetings with its Islamic counterparts. The Iranian government also created several entities dedicated to interfaith research and discussion, such as former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s International Center for Dialogue Among Cultures and Civilizations. In direct response to Samuel P. Huntington’s 1993 Foreign Affairs essay, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Khatami proposed that there should be “dialogue among civilizations.”
Under Khatami’s successor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, interfaith dialogue continued. In 2011, two senior American bishops helped to negotiate the successful release of two American hikers, jailed in Iran in 2009 under the allegation that they were spies. Anglican Bishop John Bryson Chane and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick worked on the clemency agreement for over a year—after the U.S. State Department told family members that they had run out of options. Chane already had top contacts among the Iranian elite as the only American to have met Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The Catholic Church, too, has emphasized interfaith cooperation. As a result of Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church believes Christians and Muslims worship the same God. The encyclical Nostra Aetate, issued by Pope Paul VI in 1965, virtually ordered the faithful to turn from past prejudices and to see Islam in a new, positive way. In fact, some theologians argue that Shiite Islam resembles Christianity in a number of ways, in practice if not in dogma. In Iran, religious authority is far more centralized than in Sunni-majority countries: The Supreme Leader is elected from the Assembly of Experts, comprised of some 80 ayatollahs popularly elected from 30 districts to serve eight-year terms. The system is analogous to the Orthodox and Catholic systems of selecting patriarchs and popes. Shiite imams, like Catholic priests, are considered recipients of divine grace. Many Christians and Shiites also share a devotion to a female spiritual figure: Mary, mother of Jesus, plays a similar role to Fatima (known as al-Zahra, the Shining One), the favorite daughter of the Prophet Muhammad.
The story of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, also shares similarities with Jesus’ sacrifice and crucifixion. Hussein was the son of Imam Ali, whom the Shiite believe was the Prophet’s rightful successor and is at the center of the historical disagreement with Sunnis. He was brutally killed during the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. Every year, on the holy day of Asura, the Shiite commemorate Hussein’s sacrifice. In Iran, some flagellate themselves so that they might suffer as Hussein did.
THE NUCLEAR DEAL
Historical ties based on religion, and a shared outlook on Syria led to an outright political alliance over the nuclear deal. In April 2014, a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met with Iran’s Supreme Council of the Seminary Teachers of Qom and achieved a common position against nuclear weapons. They issued a joint declaration, stating that Shiite Islam “opposes and forbids the production, stockpiling, use, and threat to use weapons of mass destruction. Catholicism is also working for a world without weapons of mass destruction and calls on all nations to rid themselves of these indiscriminate weapons.” The American bishops, consulting the Vatican throughout, were most influenced by the fact that both Supreme Leaders Ruhollah Khomenei and Ali Khamenei had issued fatwas against the use of nuclear and chemical weapons. When Francis praised the eventual U.S.–Iranian deal at the United Nations in September, he spoke of the “sincerity, patience, and constancy” that led to its achievement. In the United States, Catholic entities lobbied Congress to approve the deal, encouraged by Rome to do so. More recently, the Vatican lobbied for Iran’s inclusion in the second round of peace talk on Syria in Vienna.
Whether the Vatican and Iran can find ways to collaborate to pressure the international community for a peace agreement in Syria is a topic for Pope Francis and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during their upcoming meeting, which was originally scheduled on November 14, but has since been postponed due to the Paris terror attacks on November 13. On the agenda is Vatican support for local ceasefires such as the one that was recently negotiated for the city of Homs and, in September, for Zabadani, a city on the border with Lebanon where Iran negotiated on behalf of Assad. The Vatican wants to help build momentum for a peace process that respects Iran’s role because it sees Tehran as an indispensable participant: ready to safeguard faith groups that Western governments have, so far, largely failed to protect.