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The 160-Year Christian History Behind What's Happening in Ukraine
Image: Rumlin / Wikimedia Commons

In recent days, the Crimean peninsula has been at the heart of what some have described as the greatest international crisis of the 21st century. But this is not the first time the region has been so critical to international affairs. Many educated people have at least heard of the great struggle known as the Crimean War (1853-56), although its causes and events remain mysterious to most non-specialists.

If the conflict is remembered today, it resonates through the heroic charitable efforts of Florence Nightingale and the foundation of modern nursing. Actually, that earlier war deserves to be far better known as a pivotal moment in European religious affairs. Without knowing that religious element, moreover—without a sense of its Christian background—we will miss major themes in modern global affairs, in the Middle East and beyond.

Given its date, that religious emphasis may seem wildly anachronistic. This was, after all, a highly modern struggle between the Great Powers of the day: Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against Tsarist Russia. The war was fought with highly modern technology, including railroads and telegraphs, not to mention deadly artillery. Some 800,000 died, almost half from disease—at least as many fatalities as in the American Civil War of the next decade.

Yet the war's causes seem to belong to a strictly pre-modern era, and Orlando Figes' excellent recent history calls this The Last Crusade. As in medieval times, the war grew out of the situation of Christians under Muslim rule in the Middle East, and specifically the control of Jerusalem's holy places.

From the 15th century, the dominant Muslim power was the Turkish Ottoman Empire, which ruled over millions of Christians—Armenians, Greeks, Slavs, and others. As Ottoman power crumbled, European Christian nations pressed hard on its shrinking borders, annexing its territory. From the 1770s, the main predator was Orthodox Russia, which soon established its control of the Black Sea region and pushed into the Caucasus. The Russians also demanded and won the right to protect the holy places, which were to be under Orthodox supervision.

Given time, the Russians would undoubtedly have snapped up the whole Ottoman realm if other powers, especially Britain, had not dreaded the creation of a Russian superpower stretching from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean. In effect, Britain became the protector and guarantor of the corrupt and failing Ottoman regime. This international balance of terror allowed the Ottoman Empire to drag on its existence into the 20th century.

That status quo was destabilized in 1852 with the accession of a new French regime under Napoleon III, who had initially seized power in a coup d'état. Facing deep divisions at home, and desperate to prove his legitimacy, he sought to increase his prestige by provoking an international crisis. He did so by exploiting Orthodox–Catholic battles in Jerusalem, gruesome and grossly undignified street-fights led by clergy on both sides, which sometimes erupted into full-scale riots.

In 1846, one such clerical rumble left 40 dead. In 1853, Napoleon demanded that the Ottomans place the holy places under the power of the Roman Catholic Church, and backed up his demands by a naval expedition. We need not go too deeply into the tortuous diplomacy that followed, except to say that war broke out in October 1853. But yes, indeed, even in the age of steam power and the industrial revolution, half of Europe really did go to war over religious grievances.

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The 160-Year Christian History Behind What's Happening in Ukraine