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PLUS ÇA CHANGE

Agnostics Anonymous

In 1846, hostility between Orthodox and Catholic monks boiled over at Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre as they came to blows over who would hold their Easter mass first. As Simon Sebag Montefiore describes it in Jerusalem 'Suddenly, the two sides were fighting with every weapon they could improvise from the ecclesiastical paraphernalia at their disposal'. This scene led directly to one of the European history's more farcical wars.

Religious fervour in Tsar Nicholas' Russia seized upon the issue, taking it as justification for a crusade against the Ottoman Turks. The French, in their role as defenders of the Catholic faith, rallied to the cause of the Turks, bringing along an England worried about the Russian threat to her empire. The upshot was the Crimean War.

After failing to help Russia win that one or the subsequent Great War, Tsar Nicholas' 'Russian God' seemed to have been slain by Marx. But 160 years on, He's inspiring another invasion. President Putin restored to the Orthodox Church its state-confiscated property, and further endeared himself to the faithful with his pursuit of a conservative social agenda. The persecution of Pussy Riot and Russia's homosexuals has alienated the West, but it consummated the romance between Putin and the Orthodox, whose Patriach Kirill acclaims the former KGB man as a 'miracle'. Now Russia is taking its internal crusade against Western liberalism on the road.

Samuel Huntington's 1993 article 'The Clash of Civilizations' predicted increasing strife between Islam and the West and thus in 2001 won rapid acceptance as a key to decoding the 21st-century world. In the same article he identified another faultline 'separating the more Catholic western Ukraine from Orthodox eastern Ukraine'. He anticipated that Russia would reject the West and identify itself with 'Slavic-Orthodox' civilization. Huntington also warned that while 'a Western democrat could carry on an intellectual debate with a Soviet Marxist, it would be virtually impossible for him to do that with a Russian traditionalist'. So it proves.

'You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion', blustered US Secretary of State John Kerry in response to Russia's invasion. But appealing to modernity won't help. The Crimean War seemed like an anachronism even to the Victorians. A Times leader in 1853 urged that 'a European war over the tomb of our Saviour would be too monstrous in the nineteenth century'. It seemed absurd that a clash of ancient superstitions could provoke a modern war. But the Crimean War was a harbinger of our world where religion is once again a constant casus belli. If you want a picture of the future imagine those monks bashing each other's faces in with their candlesticks, forever.