Church Leader Backs Syria Campaign as Russia Marks Orthodox Christmas

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The head of Russia's Orthodox Church justified the Kremlin's bombing campaign in Syria, calling it a "defensive war" in an interview released Thursday as the country marked Orthodox Christmas.

Patriarch Kirill said Moscow's military strikes were necessary to protect Russia from "terrorism".

"As long as the war is carried out in self-defense, then it is just," Kirill told state-run Rossiya 1 television channel.

"All that is happening is a self-defensive, responsive action. In that sense, we can safely talk about it is a just struggle."

The Kremlin launched a bombing campaign in Syria in late September at the request of its long-standing ally Syrian President Bashar Assad saying it was targeting jihadists who posed a threat to Russia.

But the campaign has drawn condemnation from the West -- which accuses Moscow of bombing moderate groups to prop up Assad -- and allegations that it has caused mass civilian casualties.

Russia's Orthodox Church enjoys close ties with the Kremlin and has seen its influence grow as conservative values have been increasingly promoted during President Vladimir Putin's 15 years in charge.

Putin himself marked the holiday by attending the midnight service at the church in the central Tver region, some 150 kilometers (90 miles) northwest of Moscow, where his parents were reportedly christened.

The strongman leader later praised the Orthodox Church and other Christian faiths for their "responsible service" in Russian society in a Christmas greeting published on the Kremlin website.

"They take a constructive part in bringing up the younger generation, strengthening the institution of the family, motherhood and childhood," the statement said.

"They are doing a lot to maintain harmony in relations between people of different ethnic groups and religions. This great work deserves sincere respect."

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