Max Rossi / Reuters Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican, November 18, 2015.

The Vatican's Middle East Politics

Why the Pope Partners With Iran

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 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.

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