Question: Mr Lavrov, the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society has historical ties with the Middle East, the people living in this internationally significant region – the land of three global religions. The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society has always pursued noble goals and sought to strengthen Russia’s position in the Middle East. June 3, 2017 will mark 135 years since this ancient society was founded. What do you think of its current activities, including its friendly ties with Middle Eastern people, its contribution to cultural, historical and spiritual heritage, and mainly the phenomenon of “Russian Palestine”? Why do you think the Society has been so long lasting and instrumental in the Middle East as the oldest non-governmental organisation in the over 100 years of its history?
Sergey Lavrov: To begin with, I’d like to congratulate all Society members on the upcoming 135th anniversary of the day Alexander III decreed the founding of the organisation following the initiative of many prominent personalities and public figures of the time. This society was designed to promote friendly relations with the people of the region, particularly to create favourable conditions for pilgrims. However, it didn’t just seek to make it possible for Russian people to travel to the holy sites but also to ensure Russia’s presence in the Holy Land, to create the “Russian Palestine” you mentioned.
Since then, the society has been pro-actively working in the Middle East. It has purchased a lot of land in this holy place for all Christians, Jews and Muslims. The society has implemented many educational, humanitarian and enlightening missions and has acquired an authority and a stable, reliable reputation in the region.
The fact that we are energetically restoring the society’s position after the Soviet-era pause is, I believe, meeting the fundamental interests of the Russian state and the noble goal of preserving the continuity of our history. Apart from the spiritual aspects, “Russian Palestine” today is an essential instrument for consolidating Russia’s positions, which adds another dimension to our diplomacy in this important area.
Question: Sergei Stepashin, Chairman of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS), has a quite good rapport with the leaders of the Middle Eastern countries. He regularly meets with President of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu and President of Syria Bashar al-Assad. We met with the Pope back in 2014, as well as with patriarchs of Eastern churches, leaders of Muslim and Christian communities. As you said, the society has credibility in the Middle East. What do you think the society could do to be more efficient as an international NGO using its soft power and public diplomacy? And how can it use its peacemaking potential in the Middle East as a promoter of public diplomacy to settle conflicts?
Sergey Lavrov: If I remember correctly, Mr Stepashin has been at the head of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society since 2007. The Society has become substantially more visible and active over that period. I am also a member of the IOPS.
Remark: Honourary member.
Sergey Lavrov: Yes, honourary member. But not “honourary” in the sense of “doing nothing.” I try to be helpful, and I can see how the society is building up its achievements.
First of all, in 2008, we signed an agreement on visa-free travel between Russia and Israel, which made the pilgrimage of our citizens, who have great interest in visiting Jerusalem and other holy places in Palestine, much easier. Since then, the society reclaimed several sites that belonged to it before the revolution, for example, several plots in Jericho, a plot in Bethlehem and St Sergius Metochion in Jerusalem the renovation of which is reaching completion. I hope we will soon celebrate its re-opening together.
There are other projects, including the restoration of rights to St Alexander Metochion, a unique church in close proximity to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. A museum and park were established on the grounds in Jericho. The ancient sycamore tree in that area is said to be the one where Jesus Christ rested in the shade and talked to his disciples. The society’s land in Bethlehem was given to the Russian Science and Culture Centre. IOPS headquarters is also there. I think these achievements alone create conditions for expanding our presence in the Holy Land and help promote the moral values of tolerance, a peaceful life and harmony among all faiths. This work is without any doubt very important.
In addition to being a personal example of building good relationships between faiths, there must be other measures. Let’s be honest, these days Christians are subject to serious persecution in the Middle East and primarily in Syria and Iraq. The number of Christians in these countries has dropped sharply. Of course, the fleeing of Christians from the region where Christianity originated would have a massive impact on the entire history and the spiritual life of not just the Holy Land but the entire Middle East. So, the IOPS and our governmental organisations are seeking the assistance of international agencies in raising this urgent issue.
Eighteen months ago, we had the first conference on protection for Christians with representatives of the Vatican and our colleagues from Lebanon and Armenia, in Geneva. Now we are preparing for a second conference that will be even bigger. Tentatively, it will take place this autumn. We believe IOPS participation in the conference will add to its efficiency.
The society should not limit its activity to the Middle East. The IOPS has gained experience and won great influence. The interests of Christians in other parts of the world also require much attention, including in European countries where Christians, the religious majority, are often restricted in their rights on the pretext of tolerance. Celebrating Christian holidays publicly or wearing a cross is sometimes prohibited. It is a very dangerous trend. I think it would be helpful if the IOPS initiated the development of inter-state measures to promote an inter-faith dialogue around the world and instill respect for other religious and moral values which are, by the way, shared by all faiths. The Holy Land is a symbol of this cohabitation and cooperation.
Question: The Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IOPS) expresses its opinions in the UN Human Rights Council and the OSCE. We attend conferences on Christianophobia and try to attract the attention of the international community at UNESCO to the plight of Christians not just in the Middle East but in Europe too, where basic Christian values are eroding. We have created a Public Centre at the IOPS for the Protection of Christians in the Middle East and North Africa. It was a great honour for us to accompany you and the foreign ministers of two other countries to the high-level panel of the UN Human Rights Council’s session in Geneva in March 2015. A unique document was adopted at the session and signed by 65 countries, including the Vatican. Unfortunately, this has not stopped the genocide of Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East. What do you think about the future of Christians in the Middle East? Why are ISIS terrorists destroying Christian monuments and relics so violently and as much as they can? What can the IOPS do to help maintain a Christian presence in Syria, Palestine, Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East?
Sergey Lavrov: ISIS terrorists do not limit their persecution to Christians. They also ruthlessly behead Shias and defile and destroy both Christian and Shiite shrines. Moreover, they also apply special criteria to Sunnis. Not every Sunni is acceptable to the ISIS ideologists. It is a fact that those who stand at the head of this organisation and who inspire its actions are not pious people. They are fighting for power and territory. ISIS is the first terrorist group whose goal is to create a caliphate from Lisbon to Pakistan, as they have declared. By the way, the core of the ISIS military power is comprised of Hussein’s former generals who lost their jobs in 2003 when the US broke up Iraq’s army and security services, thereby leaving well trained military personnel without a living. Everyone understands this now. Yet we continue to hear hypocritical calls for government change, including in Syria, although we know what happened after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in Iraq and the butchering of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. These hypocritical calls mean that those who make them are unwise people at the least, or even villains who enjoy destruction or seek to destroy entire countries and regions for their own benefit.
You’re right: there are many examples; Palmyra is one of them. Archaeologists from Russia and other UNESCO member states are working in Palmyra. But we must still eliminate the root of the problem, which is the hatred of other people, refusal to accept other people’s right to choose their religious values, and attempts to exploit religious sentiment to incite hatred of people with a different faith.
I believe that telling the truth about the origins of Christianity and Islam, the role of Judaism in the Middle East and the spread of these religions to other regions is a very serious educational work. The IOPS could be suited for it better than other organisations. I am convinced that many countries would be happy to work with the IOPS, and the upcoming celebrations are a good opportunity to say this loud and clear, and in unison.
Question: In March 2013 we started providing humanitarian aid to the suffering people of Syria, both Christians and Muslims, who receive it through their spiritual leaders, with the blessing of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia. We are preparing the 15th consignment of aid now. We are grateful to the Russian citizens who have responded to an appeal from our NGO. People from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad take part in these humanitarian missions. How would you assess Russians’ response to developments in Syria and to the IOPS’ contribution to the humanitarian mission in Syria?
Sergey Lavrov: You got it right when you said that “people from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad” have contributed to your efforts. I’m sure that Russian citizens have never lost and will never lose the tradition of charity and compassion, especially when this concerns friendly people who are close to us.
Syria is a wonderful country. Russia and Syria have many things in common, because both are multinational and multi-confessional nations. The psychology and state traditions in Russia and Syria are based on interfaith, interreligious and interethnic peace and accord. The disruption of peace and accord do not benefit societies.
We had a difficult period in our recent history. But now we have restored the unity of our people, and I’m sure than nobody will be able to destroy it. It is important to preserve the Syrian nation as we know it, as a country where the values of the great global religions coexisted peacefully to the joy and satisfaction of all Syrians and the large number of tourists who went to Syria to enjoy this wonderful country and the people.
We will continue to provide state humanitarian assistance to Syrians in addition to the assistance provided by our NGOs, including the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society. The Russian Government has sent dozens of consignments with humanitarian aid to Syria, including food, medicines and school and hospital equipment. We now plan to build a school in Syria, and the IOPS is cooperating with us in this. I hope this school will become one of the most popular schools in Syria.
Question: It will be a gift from Russian society to the Syrian people. We strongly hope that the day will come when you and IOPS Chairman, Sergey Stepashin, conduct a peace lesson in this Damascus school. We will pray for the fulfilment of this dream.
You spoke about the importance of pilgrimage and recalled the sites we visited in Syria. The IOPS is expanding the network of its foreign branches in the Middle East and has dozens of branches in Europe. Our goal is to attract tourists and pilgrims to Russia and to Orthodox pilgrimage sites in other countries. The IOPS has proposed opening national tourism centres in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. What do you think about our international efforts?
Sergey Lavrov: I have a positive view of them, and the Foreign Ministry will provide all-round assistance to you.
Article in Russian: Министр иностранных дел России Сергей Лавров дал интервью интернет-сайту Императорского Православного Палестинского Общества