Speech by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at a high-level event on issues of protecting Christians, Geneva, March 2, 2015

Ladies and gentlemen,

Dear friends,

Christianity is the world’s largest religion in terms of both the number of its supporters and its worldwide presence. After all, every country has at least one Christian community. Today, increasingly more Christians – in fact, millions of them – are being subjected to persecution, harassment and discrimination, or are even falling victim to atrocities.

I am primarily referring to the Middle East, the cradle of Christianity and human civilisation in general. Today, this region has been swept by a wave of extremism, while its interfaith and civilisational contradictions have become sharply aggravated. Normal living activities and the very existence of many religious communities have been put under threat.

Since the very beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, Russia has urged the world community to prevent religious extremists from establishing complete control over the processes of change. Russia advocated settling the crises by political and diplomatic methods and promoting the long overdue reforms via national dialogue. It favoured a search for peace and concord between all religious groups, including different trends of Islam and Christianity.

A dramatic situation has taken shape in Syria, which was historically a poly-ethnic and multi-religious country. Its life was based on a unique model of peaceful and mutually respectful co-existence of various religious communities. Now this model is being destroyed as a result of connivance with extremists and attempts to use them in the struggle against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Terrorist groups, which have announced the formation of the so-called “caliphate,” are engaging in an orgy of violence in Syria and Iraq, which is being accompanied by the destruction of dozens of Christian churches, including ancient shrines, and by a Christian exodus. Whole cities, for instance Mosul, have been actually left without their traditional Christian presence.

Jihadists are perpetrating heinous crimes on the lands of “the caliphate” and are forcibly imposing obscurantist views by killing Christians, including clergymen, burning them alive, selling them into slavery, robbing them of their property, ousting them from their lands or taking them hostage. A week ago, militants of the so-called Islamic State – which in reality has nothing to do with Islam, nor will it be allowed to become a state – led 150 Assyrian Christians in an unknown direction in northeastern Syria, and desecrated and destroyed two churches. It is hard to find words in reaction to the brutal massacre of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians that was perpetrated in Libya a month ago. We believe these crimes have all the signs of genocide under the 1948 Convention.

The Christian exodus from the Middle East is likely to have the most negative influence on the structure of Arab societies and the preservation of historical and spiritual legacy that is important for all humankind. I am convinced that it is necessary to redouble the efforts to prevent the persecution of Christians and supporters of all other religions.

Our common task is to pool efforts for the struggle against extremism and terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa. Important steps towards this end were made with the adoption of UN Security Council resolutions, including resolutions 2170 and 2199. However, our joint ability to reliably block any channels of support for terrorists, such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nuṣrah and the like, by using the available mechanisms of the Security Council, will play the decisive role in this respect. A no less urgent task is to prevent the jihadists from captivating the minds and souls of younger people and from recruiting them into their ranks. We are supporting the initiatives of the region’s Christian and Muslim leaders that are aimed at opposing, by concerted efforts, the attempts of extremists of all kinds to desecrate and distort the high moral principles of the great world religions.

The tragic events in the Middle East suggest one more conclusion. It is necessary to give up once and for all the temptation to make the destinies of whole nations hostage to the geopolitical ambitions, which are being achieved through crude interference in the affairs of sovereign states.

To our great regret, Christians are being persecuted not only in the Middle East. I must mention Ukraine, where a fratricidal war was unleashed in the wake of an unconstitutional coup, and where ethnic radicals have taken a course towards stoking interfaith strife. Orthodox churches and monasteries are being destroyed; clergymen and believers are being intimidated and abused. In southeastern Ukraine alone, ten churches have been completely destroyed and another 77 have been seriously damaged. Three Orthodox clergymen have been killed. Many clergymen have fled to Russia in the face of extremist threats.

I also have to mention the problems experienced by Christians in a number of West European states, where for some reason it has become politically incorrect to identify oneself as a Christian, and where people are even starting to become uncomfortable with Christian values that form the foundation of the European civilisation. Aggressive secularism is gaining momentum. The notions of morality and traditional national, cultural and religious identity are being eroded. Incidences of vandalism and desecration of churches, temples, holy places, cemeteries and Christian symbols are growing fast. It is increasingly difficult for believers to uphold their convictions.

Lessons of history show that a civilisation that has abandoned its moral ideals loses its spiritual strength. All of us must remember this, especially this year, when we are marking the 70th anniversary of the Great Victory in World War II, in which tens of millions of people of all ethnicities and religions perished. Our common duty is not to betray the feat of the victors, and to counter uncompromisingly any attempts to fan up hostility and hatred. The efforts to defend the values of all world religions – the vehicles of the common heritage of humanity – are called upon to play a tremendous role in this respect.

We welcome the activities of the OSCE, which has already held conferences on countering Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and is preparing another conference on Christianophobia. We are urging the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe to pay more attention to these issues, including within the framework of the Dialogue of Civilisations forum. We are convinced that the Human Rights Council should also contribute to resolving these problems.

We hope that this meeting will become a major stage in mobilising the collective efforts of the world community to protect the rights of believers and religious values.