The outreach has its beginnings in conflict. Russia intervened in Syria’s devastating civil war in 2015 to help turn the tide in favor of Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This also opened up chances for Moscow to deepen its influence in Syria, now its main foothold in the Middle East.
Many in Russia see Syria’s Christians as cut from the same cloth and the powerful Russian Orthodox Church as their logical protector. In recent years, this has taken the form of reconstruction efforts for churches ravaged by Islamist militants.
Much of Russia’s recent attention has focused on Maaloula, a rock-hewn town in the mountains northeast of Damascus. Before the war, Christian pilgrims from around the globe would flock to St. Thecla’s monastery, making the treacherous journey through a narrow canyon before finding the tomb of the eponymous saint.
In January, the rebuilt 1,600-year-old monastery was unveiled by a private group led by an influential member of Russia’s parliament, Dmitry Sablin. He said a hotel is planned next in Maaloula, one of the last places left where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken.
“Then masses of Russian pilgrims will be able to come down here, to touch the greatest shrine in Christianity, to receive joy and grace,” Sablin said during a visit to Maaloula.
Russia’s ties with Christians in the Holy Lands go back centuries. During the czarist era, Russia considered itself their guardian. During the 18th century reign of Catherine the Great, her rule was often compared to her ancient Syrian counterpart, Queen Zenobia. The imperial capital of St. Petersburg earned a moniker as the “Palmyra of the North,” named after the ancient desert city in central Syria that holds spectacular Roman ruins. In the Soviet era, there was a craze for all things Palmyra, with trains, hotels and even cigarettes named after the city.
“Russia’s involvement in Syria was a very clear defense of a common culture,” Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, said in an interview. His museum holds one of the world’s largest collection of ancient Syrian artifacts and antiquities, including from Palmyra.
Assad, a member of the Muslim Alawite minority, has described his benefactor President Vladimir Putin as “the sole defender of Christian civilization one can rely on.”
The plight of Middle Eastern Christians — long a rallying cry of white American evangelicals — has also caught the attention of President Trump, who said two years ago that Christians in Syria were being “horribly treated.”
After Trump’s plans to withdraw most U.S. forces from Syria, the country’s Christians have become a rare point of common purpose between the Russian church and American evangelicals.
The World Summit in Defense of Persecuted Christians, held two years ago in Washington, was a joint project by Russian Patriarch Kirill and the Rev. Franklin Graham.
Graham, son of the late evangelical leader Billy Graham, later led the conference, where senior Russian clergymen met with Vice President Pence.
“If Christianity in the Middle East is destroyed, then Christianity everywhere will collapse. By being there, Russia is defending Christianity like imperial Russia did before it,” said Piotrovsky, the Hermitage’s director.