“You are set to continue the course outlined by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin … in the aim of preserving our country’s unity … and opening up opportunities for building a state based on new democratic principles,” Patriarch Alexius told Dmitry Medvedev on 7 May as the new Russian president was presented with an icon at Moscow’s Cathedral of the Annunciation. Kremlin photo.
by Daniel Jianu
12 May 2008
The Eastern Orthodox Church finds common ground in challenging ‘western’ policies.
ATHENS The Eastern Orthodox Church is influencing international affairs again as it previously did during the NATO Kosovo campaign in 1999. Back then, the reactions of many Europeans reflected their cultural and religious backgrounds; many Greeks, Bulgarians, Romanians, Cypriots and Russians were against the bombing of their Orthodox brethren in Serbia.
Since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in February, the reactions have more or less followed the same pattern. Among the countries most opposed to this declaration and seemingly most reluctant to recognize Kosovo's independence were again Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria. Under pressure from both Washington and Brussels to preserve stability in the region, Bulgaria's government did eventually recognize Kosovo's independence against many protests from the intellectual elite and large swathes of the general population.
Though these countries have legitimate political and geo-strategic reasons justifying their reactions, there is no coincidence that they are all Eastern Orthodox Christian nations. Kosovo after all carries powerful mythic import as the cradle of Serbian Orthodox history, the place where Prince Lazar and his forces went down in defeat in 1389 against the encroaching Muslim Ottomans.
The divide between Eastern and Western Christendom has deep historical undercurrents that have lately spotlighted the close relations between church and state in Orthodox countries, and how this relationship affects European affairs. The Eastern Orthodox Church, unlike predominantly Protestant and to some extent Roman Catholic countries, does not have a particularly deep tradition of secular relations with states where it is the majority religion. As Graham E. Fuller wrote in the January/February issue of Foreign Policy magazine, “The culture of the Orthodox Church differs sharply from the Western post-Enlightenment ethos, which emphasizes secularism, capitalism, and the primacy of the individual.”
GROWING VOICE IN THE EU
Until recently, Greece has been the European Union’s main Orthodox country, but with the accession of Cyprus in 2004 and Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, there are now more than 40 million Orthodox Christians in the union. A trend causing concern for many EU countries and the United States is the increasing assertiveness of Russia in European affairs. Besides the more familiar political and economic issues focusing on energy, there is a religious-cultural element as well. Orthodoxy is an increasingly important religious power bloc that has started to flex its muscle.
In Greece, the Orthodox Church is a powerful force driving and influencing many government decisions on domestic as well as foreign policy. The Greek government financially supports the Orthodox Church by paying for the salaries and religious training of clergy and financing the maintenance of church buildings. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2007 International Religious Freedom report, the Greek Orthodox Church exercises “significant social, political, and economic influence. … Some non-Orthodox citizens complained of being treated with suspicion or told that they were not truly Greek when they revealed their religious affiliation.”
Religious and national identity are the two faces of the same coin in Greek society, a link that has strong historical claims going back to Ottoman times when religion was the most important mark of group identity, and that continues to underscore and strengthen the significance of Orthodoxy to the modern Greek identity. As the late Chief Prelate of the Greek Orthodox Church, Archbishop Christodoulos, said many times, “Greece means Orthodoxy.”
More alarming is the role the Church plays in stoking nationalistic – and at times anti-Western – flames in the general population, which in turn creates pressure on politicians to pander to jingoistic, nationalistic and anti-Muslim tendencies. In Greece, home to a sizable Muslim population, discrimination against the Muslims in the north of the country is longstanding and endemic and unfortunately, these days it seems to be extending to the ethnic Albanian, mostly Muslim population of Kosovo.
In Romania and Bulgaria, where churches were sidelined during communism and where people could not attend religious services openly, the Orthodox Church is reclaiming its space in the civil and political affairs of the state. Public officials in Sofia, for example, have opposed construction of new mosques despite a growing Muslim community.
In the last few years, Romania has experienced a rising tide of nationalism that blames Romania's problems on minorities, with special attention shown the Hungarian minority, which is almost entirely outside the Orthodox faith. As 87 percent of Romanians consider themselves Orthodox, the Romanian Orthodox Church exercises substantial influence among the public and the politicians. Religious leaders preside over most state occasions and make public appearances with prominent political figures. Religious messages often contain political promises and support for particular political positions. As a result, few Romanian politicians dare sponsor bills or advocate domestic or foreign policies that would displease the Orthodox Church.
A PULPIT IN THE KREMLIN?
In Russia, Orthodoxy has re-emerged as a powerful voice and a de-facto official religion exercising influence over political and economic policies of the state. The Russian Orthodox Church has slowly morphed over the last 20 years into a unifying force offering a new national identity for many Russians. In one recent poll, 71 percent of respondents described themselves as Russian Orthodox, up from 59 percent in 2003, although few Russians actually go to church regularly. This grassroots influence has made its presence felt in Russian foreign policy regarding Kosovo and Serbia, a policy that is also partially based on values of “Orthodox solidarity” stemming from an unspoken alliance between political and church leaders.
As Clifford J. Levy of The New York Times wrote recently, “This close alliance between the government and the Russian Orthodox Church has become a defining characteristic of Putin’s tenure, a mutually reinforcing choreography that is usually described here as working ‘in symphony.’ ” In December, Patriarch Alexius II openly praised Vladimir Putin’s announcement of Dmitry Medvedev as his heir-apparent to the presidency. Putin and Medvedev made a joint appearance with the patriarch at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral during Easter services last month.
These religious influences in Russia, Greece and the newly acceded EU countries are motivated to cooperate and play an increased role in European policies, with support for Serbia and the opposition to an independent Kosovo being two examples.
In contrast to the Roman Catholic Church, with its seat of power at the Vatican, the main current of Orthodoxy is represented by a collection of 15 independent churches with their own leaders. Nonetheless, they have found common ground in combating perceived runaway secularism in Europe and policies deemed detrimental to predominantly Orthodox countries.
Concerns of faith also reflect suspicions of an imperialistic, domineering West that are particularly strong in countries like Russia and Serbia. The perception in these countries is that religion is one way to protect and preserve their own communities and cultures. Even in the EU countries, the Orthodox Church is challenged by the increasing societal and state acceptance of homosexuality, abortion and genetic research – trends that instill fear of a slow loss of legitimacy and influence with national political leaders.
This combination of simmering religious insecurity among Orthodox believers in the EU; Orthodoxy’s growing confidence in the east; and strict dogmatic views on sensitive issues has the potential to develop into a greater challenge for both U.S. and EU policy in the region.