Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Russia to rebuild its presence in the Holy Land

The first Russian school will open in Bethlehem on 1 September this year. It will be the first in a series of similar initiatives as Russia tries to rebuild its historic presence in the Holy Land and re-assert its influence in the region. 

Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and the president of the Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society (IPPO) Sergei Stepashin discussed the issue recently at a meeting in Moscow. 

Founded in 1882 by Tsar Alexander III, IPPO is Russia's oldest non-governmental organisation, and the only one that remained active even during Soviet times. 

Today, it is the best example of the close cooperation between Church and state in the defence of Christians in the Middle East.

"Mahmoud Abbas has asked for more schools," Stepashin told reporters, adding "We must not lose the Middle East".

Before 1917, there were around 100 Russian schools in Bethlehem, he explained, more than 70 were in Lebanon and Syria. 

At the turn of the 20th century, 'Russian Palestine' meant dozens of churches, hostels, monasteries, schools and hospitals built by the Russians in the Holy Land for pilgrims and the Arab inhabitants. 

Then as now, the Moscow Patriarchate's definition of "Holy Land" included the territories currently under the Palestinian National Authority, as well as Israel, Syria and Lebanon. 

In 1964, the Soviet government sold most of them to Israel for a token sum of US$ 4.5 million. The restitution of Russia's historical properties in the region is now under way.

The biggest success so far was the return of the Sergei Podval, or Sergei's Courtyard, currently being restored by Russia. Slated to reopen in 2015, it will also house a cultural centre.

Russian schools could also open in Ramallah and Gaza Strip in the future, Stepashin said. A 450-capacity Russian secondary school started being built in Jerusalem. More could be built in Nazareth and Jaffa, where many Russian families live.

In 2013, some 450,000 Russian pilgrims visited Palestine. Before the revolution, the region was visited annually by around a million people from the Russian Empire.

This spring, IPPO has plans for several conferences in Beirut and Geneva, Stepashin explained. It also plans to work with the Vatican and Pope Francis on the issue of the defence of Christians in the Middle East.

For some analysts with the Carnegie Center in Moscow, attempts to rebuild Russia's presence in the Holy Land goes hand in glove with Moscow's political strategy of regaining the influence it had in Soviet times.

In his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Abbas expressed hope that Russia would plays a central role in solving the problems of the Middle East. 

"We are happy to see Russia's political success these days, pleased with the huge political weight Russia has," said Abbas, who listed among Russia's successes the international conference on Syria, the destruction of Syria's chemical weapons and the Iranian nuclear deal.

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