Seven months ago in March, the Vatican’s diplomatic representative to the United Nations did something unusual.
Prior to March, the Vatican’s official stance on the Syrian conflict was to oppose military strikes in Syria and to that end, Pope Francis wrote to Putin during the G20 summit in 2013 and asked him to urge world leaders to peruse ‘talks’.
But as 2013 progressed into 2015, it became all too clear that the conflict had struck a knife into the heart of something near and dear to the Vatican – christianity in ISIS held territories.
Every day, the christian population in these territories suffer brutal persecution easily comparable with that of the Jewish persecution under the Nazi regime through branding, enslavement, rape, torture, beheading, hanging, etc.
It was this persecution that caused the Vatican to rethink its policy in Syria and for the first time call upon the United Nations to use military force against ISIS.
However, since the Vatican urged the United Nations to intervene militarily, the effort by the United States led coalition to defeat ISIS has been largely anemic.
For example, in September, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command, made an embarrassing admission to the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said almost all of the Syrian rebels trained by the American military as part of the $500 million dollar program to fight ISIS had either been killed, captured or had fled from ISIS militants.
“Of the Rebels that are left in the fight… we’re talking… four or five!!” the General awkwardly told the committee.
Half a billion dollars had produced – but 4 – US backed rebels at that particular point in time.
To compound the US’s lacklustre effort, the last remaining US aircraft carrier in the region left the Persian gulf last week.
The Vatican’s call for an effective military force against ISIS seemed to fall on deaf ears.
In many respects the Papacy has been in this situation before. Its a situation where the Vatican supports the use of military force in an effort to preserve itself and by extension, Roman Catholicism.
A notable example occurred prior to AD 800 when the existence of the Pope was threatened by war. The emperor of Constantinople could no longer afford him protection against the Longbeards and so the Pope formed an alliance with the French emperor in A.D. 800 who gave him ‘temporal’ control over three states making him not just a religious ruler but a civil and military ruler over his own states.
However in 1870 the Pope lost this temporal power, and 145 years later in 2015, the Pope now presides over a religious administration that lacks any significant military and civil power.
Without a military backbone, the Vatican has been effective at ‘seducing and influencing’ the nations, however, as the Time Magazine notes, this ‘influence’ is beginning to show its limits:
Ultimately many of the world problems are not responsive to the kind of “soft power” Francis is deploying.
~ Time Magazine
And so the Vatican’s policy on dealing with ISIS changed from ‘talks’ to ‘military intervention’. From ‘soft power’ to ‘hard power’ as Time puts it. However no military entity to date has effectively responded to the Vatican’s call… until last month.
It was last month that Putin poured military assets into Syria and asserted himself as a power to be reckoned with.
Immediately, US warplanes were ordered to divert away from Russian bombers who are bombing on average more than 5 times the intensity than US bombers and last week, Russia started using cruise missiles to bomb enemy strongholds with no advanced notice to US air-traffic.
As Stratfor notes, Russia isn’t hindered by the same rules of engagement that limit U.S. operations – Russia shoots first and asks questions later.
But lets do away with commenting on Russia’s aggressive operational presence because the Papacy sees something else in Russia that is of even greater value.
The MOST alluring aspect of Russia’s operation in Syria in the eyes of the Papacy is that Russia sees its own role in the Middle East as the Holy protector of Christianity.
Russia’s ties to the Middle East are rooted in its self-assigned role as the defender of Orthodox Christianity, which it claimed to inherit from the Byzantine Caesars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453
~ New York Times
In 2012, a Russian Orthodox cleric asked Putin to make ‘the protection of Christians one of the foreign policy directions in future’.
“This is how it will be, have no doubt,” – was Putins answer
Putin as a defender of Christianity is not a new concept on Russian soil, but it is a concept that is only just beginning to play out in practice in the Middle East.
What does it all mean?
Writing in 1868 in a book entitled “Exposition of Daniel”, Dr. John Thomas makes the following observation of such a conflict which might bring together the latter day Holy Roman Empire:
But the time is not far off, when the Latin Bishop (The Roman Catholic Pope) may have to seek again to the Constantiopolitan Autocracy (Russian) for protection.
~ Exposition of Daniel
With Russia exploiting its long held imperialist ambitions in the Middle East as part of a holy war to save Christians, it cannot be far off before it looks elsewhere (Turkey) to comprehensively realize those ambitions.
When that does happen, the Vatican will finally have a willing military partner in Russia who will be established as the Gogian autocracy of Constantinople – the Eastern leg of the latter day Roman empire.