Moscow (AFP) - Russia's powerful Orthodox Church on Wednesday voiced support for Moscow's decision to carry out air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State group, calling it a "holy battle".
"The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it," said the head of the Church's public affairs department, Vsevolod Chaplin, quoted by Interfax news agency.
Russia on Wednesday launched its first air strikes in Syria after President Vladimir Putin won parliamentary approval to use force abroad.
"The only correct way to fight international terrorism.... is to act preemptively, to battle and destroy fighters and terrorists on the territories they have already seized, not to wait for them to come to us," Putin said in televised comments.
In an official statement, the Church's Patriarch Kirill said "Russia took a responsible decision to use military forces to protect the Syrian people from the woes brought on by the tyranny of terrorists."
The Patriarch, who often weighs in on political matters in support of the Kremlin, said armed intervention was necessary since "the political process has not led to any noticeable improvement in the lives of innocent people, and they need military protection."
He cited the suffering of Christians in the region, the kidnapping of clerics and the destruction of churches, adding that Muslims "are suffering no less."
Church spokesman Chaplin said that the decision on military action "corresponds with international law, the mentality of our people and the special role that our country has always played in the Middle East."
A senior Muslim cleric also backed the military intervention, saying Syrians are "practically our neighbours."
"We fully back the use of a contingent of Russian armed forces in the battle against international terrorism," said Talgat Tadzhuddin, head of the Central Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia, in comments to RIA Novosti state news agency.
A council representing Russia's main religions -- Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism -- will release a joint statement on Russia's role in Syria that will "support the decision that was taken by our government", said Orthodox spokesman Chaplin.
Russia's Orthodox Church, after years of repression under the Soviets, has regained much of its influence and built up close ties with the government despite a formal separation of Church and state. President Vladimir Putin is regularly depicted attending services.
The Church has sought to increase its influence in the armed forces and achieved its goal of reintroducing religious chaplains banned by the Soviets.