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THE MYTH OF AN ORTHODOX BLOCK.

Editor's Note: This article was completed before the recent visit by the Pope to Greece. The Pope's apology for the actions of Western Christians is part of his attempt to reconcile Western and Eastern Christianity.

THE apocalyptic events of the 1990s and the disappearance of the East-West rivalry has re-shaped the landscape of Europe and the world. The violent conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, the nature of the changes and the characteristics of these conflicts, prompt many to characterise them as religious. For the first time 'Orthodoxy' (from Greek, 'right-believing', implying doctrinal consistency with apostolic truth) appeared in the Western media and academia as Orthodox Serbs, Muslims and Catholic Croats were fighting each other. The conflict in Chechnya between Muslim guerrillas and the Russian and Orthodox federation, and the conflict in Kosovo revived further these arguments concerning the role of religion in the post-Cold War system. The revival of Orthodox Christianity indicated the emergence of a new pattern and a uniform bloc from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean.

This was observed and presented extensively by S. Huntington in The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. He described a world order based on civilisation and eventually religion. In particular he explains the Balkan conflicts with the 'fault lines of civilisations' and the collisions between civilisations such as the Western, the Orthodox and the Islamic. He also identified six other civilisations and introduced, with persuasion, the importance of culture in internal affairs. These observations and the beliefs of some insiders of the region, also half-convinced Victoria Clark as she confessed in Why Angels Fall and her journey through Orthodox Europe. The idea, however, of the existence of an Orthodox bloc squeezed between the West and the Islam, implies some simplification of historical facts. In order to determine if such an orthodox bloc even exists, it seems necessary to trace its historical origin and evolution through the centuries.

Christianity initially suffered under Roman oppression but gradually gained toleration and eventually prevailed when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, himself miraculously converted to the new religion. In AD 312, on the eve of a battle against Maxentius, his rival in Italy, Constantine dreamt that Christ appeared to him and told him to inscribe the first two letters of his name ('XP' in Greek) on the shields of his troops. The next day, the Emperor is said to have seen a cross superimposed on the Sun and the words 'in this sign you will be the victor'. Constantine's favoured religion and the Church were given legal rights and large financial donations. In the next few centuries everything that was considered pagan was destroyed and by AD 527, Emperor Justinian closed the school of Athens, which was the centre of neo-platonic philosophy.

The empire needed a second administrative centre to the east and the site of the ancient city of Byzantium at the mouth of Bosphorus on the Black Sea offered the perfect location for the new city. The new Rome or Constantinople with its unique geographical position was ready by AD 330 and gradually developed into the true capital of the eastern Roman provinces, from south-eastern Europe to North Africa. While the western Roman Empire and Christendom were going through the chaotic fifth to ninth centuries, in the east, Christendom was growing, helped by the general prosperity of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). 'Byzantine' of course is an invention of eighteenth-century historians and scholars: the eastern Roman Empire was actually known as Romania. The lingua franca of the empire was Greek although some of the empire's inhabitants spoke Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and other local languages, but did not have national consciousness with its contemporary meaning. The early Byzantines were Romaioi, Christian Roman citizens who spoke Greek and lived in the eastern rather than the western Roman Empire. Church and State were conceived as one perfect harmony, or symphonia, and the emperor ordered the Oikumene, the inhabited earth. That was the birth of the original universal Christian ideal. Constantinople itself mirrored the empire with hundreds of churches with holy relics and artefacts.

In the ninth century two Byzantines from the suburbs of Thessaloniki, Cyril and Methodius, brought Christianity to the Slays in a language they could understand. The two men had invented the Glagolithic and then the Cyrillic script, which was a mix of Greek, Latin and Hebrew letters. They translated the old Greek texts into their new language, known as Church Slavonic, and, blessed by both the Pope and the Patriarch, they embarked on their first mission to Central Europe to evangelise the kingdom of Moravia. The Roman clergy in Moravia, however, were enraged by the fact that the two Byzantines were teaching in a language close to the local Slav vernacular, destroying their own Latin interests. The brothers were hounded out of Moravia and died, believing their mission a tragic failure. But their creation, Church Slavonic, became medieval Europe's third lingua franca after Greek and Latin.

The eleventh century was the critical century for the empire and the Church. After the death of Vasilios II, and the temporary peak during the Macedonian dynasty (867-1081), the empire went through a period of disarrangement, with a dozen indifferent emperors who neglected new technological, cultural, and economic developments in Western Europe and the Islamic world while the army deteriorated. The Patriarchate on the contrary seemed to strengthen itself and its influence considerably. The fact that since 1024 the Byzantine church had been recognised from the West as Ecumenical in its own sphere of influence (universalis in suam spheram), gave the Patriarchate in Constantinople political, spiritual and social prestige. The spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarch spread over the borders of the empire and included vast areas of Eastern Europe. The power of the Patriarchate, however, was closely connected with the decline of the central State authority. It is characteristic that between 1025 and 1081, the empire had twelve emperors but only five patriarchs. The patriarchal institution, therefore, proved to be much more stable than the Imperial institution which was shaking, and as it happens naturally in these cases it created tendencies towards independence from the central authority, while on the contrary the state authority needed the Church more and more. With the economy in crisis the people were heavily taxed and in the middle of the general confusion the Schism between the two Churches appeared in 1054.

During the Macedonian Dynasty, the papacy in Rome was in decay and its delegates were in constant danger of being crushed between the interests of the two empires, the Byzantine and the German. The first efforts of the papacy to increase its power and restore its prestige coincided with the acme of the Patriarch in Constantinople around the eleventh century. Beyond any dogmatic differences, which existed previously between east and west and were always resolved, the unity of the church could not be continued with two powerful Patriarchates in competition. The notion that the Roman church could dominate again in South Italy enraged the headstrong Patriarch Michael Cerularius, who in 1053 started a dogmatic polemic against Latin customs (the filioque clause in the creed-Father, Son and Holy Spirit-, the use of unleavened bread, etc) which Pope Leo IX (1048-1054) tried to impose in the area. A year later the final break occurred when a papal delegate in Constantinople, the equally narrow-minded Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, acted with great arrogance and finally left on the altar of Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) a document which anathematised the Patriarchate. Immediately, Cerularius assembled the Patriarchate's synod and the papal document was anathematised too. The anathemas were eventually cancelled on 7 December 1965, by Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I, as part of a larger effort to draw the two Churches together, after centuries of separation.

The theological explanation of the schism on its own was never convincing enough and some argued that the difference in language (Latin for the West, Greek for the East) played an important role. There is also the suggestion that the West favoured Aristotelian logic while the East favoured Platonic philosophy. This however seems a mere simplification as the political aspect and historical truth is ignored or misinterpreted. The alienation between the Eastern and Western Churches had deep cultural and political roots and evolved over the course of many centuries. As Western culture was gradually transformed, for instance, by the influx of Germanic peoples, the East sustained an unbroken tradition of Hellenistic Christianity. Although respectful of the prerogatives of Rome as the original capital of the empire, the Church at Constantinople resented some of the jurisdictional claims made by the Popes, claims vigorously renewed and amplified during the pontificate of Leo IX and his successors. The West, in turn, opposed the Caesaropapism (subordination of the Church to a secular ruler) that characterised the Church at Constantinople. The schism therefore appears to have followed the administrative division of the Roman Empire some six centuries earlier.

Emperor Alexios Comnenus I, founder of the Comnenian dynasty, nevertheless appealed to the Pope for aid against the Turks and Western Europe responded with the First Crusade (1096-1099). Although the empire initially benefited from the Crusades, recovering some land in Asia Minor, in the long run they hastened its decline. The Byzantines experienced some prosperity in the twelfth century, but their political and military power waned. Crusaders, allied with Venice, took advantage of internal Byzantine strife to seize and plunder Constantinople in 1204, establishing their own Latin Empire of Constantinople. Emperor Michael Palaeologus VIII recaptured Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 and founded the Palaeologan dynasty, which ruled the empire until 1453. The Palaeologan Empire's resources were very limited in terms of finances, land, and central authority. The emergent Ottoman Turks conquered the remnants of Byzantine Asia Minor in the early fourteenth century. After 1354 they overran the Balkans and fina lly took Constantinople, bringing the empire to an end on 29 May 1453.

After 1054 the rift in Europe widened further as in the West the Church separated from the State and became 'a social and corporational organism'. Financially and spiritually it underwrote the flowering of humanism and the Renaissance, which set man instead of God at the centre of the universe and in doing so forfeited real spiritual influence. The Reformation and the further split of the Western Church, Protestantism, was followed by the half successful Counter-Reformation and the Age of Reason with its modernity and eventual neglect for Christianity and religion in general. The Orthodox on the contrary kept the definition of the church as a community of individuals rather than as an institution or state of its own and remained organically bound to the declining Byzantine State. During the years of decline, the first indications of national consciousness started appearing in the Balkans. While the Greeks identified completely with the shrinking Greek speaking empire, the Serbian and Croatian medieval empire s, and the fragmented Bulgarian kingdoms provided other centres of identification.

Imperial Russia attempted to capitalise on the Byzantine heritage by trying to assume a central role in the vacuum that appeared. It adopted the Byzantine double headed eagle on its flag and started promoting Moscow as the third Rome and itself as the protector of the Orthodox faith. In the Balkans, however, the Ottoman domination of the area for the next five hundred years delayed this emergence of national orientation and identification. During the Ottoman rule the Church and its hierarchy in the Patriarchate became a privileged servant of the Muslim master. The orthodox clergy enjoyed good treatment during Ottoman. rule, but it also maintained through the centuries the local cultural and linguistic identity. Although the Ottoman Empire replaced for five centuries the disintegrating Byzantine Empire as a uniform entity in south-east Europe, in terms of geography and the multiculturalism of its subjects, it actually added further complications to future development and resolution of a two thousand year enti ty.

Nationalistic aspirations in the Balkans were already spreading, partially through western European ideological influence and partially through national churches which demanded their own autocephalous, or independent, Orthodox Church. With the Ottoman strength in decline a series of struggles for independence took place during the nineteenth century throughout the region. These wars had for the first time mixed nationalism with Orthodoxy. The strong role of the Orthodox faith in local societies played an important role in the creation of religious nationalism and at the same time worked as the comforting and uniting symbol for the oppressed Ottoman subjects. The first Balkan wars in 1912-13 weakened further the decaying Ottoman Empire and by the end of WWI, its European part was divided between the newly re-emerged Balkan nations that took part in the war. The geographical area of Macedonia, because of its racial and religious integrated population, was by far the most difficult part of the spoils to divide. Because of this, the new Balkan Orthodox States often came in conflict with each other as in the second Balkan wars.

The West initially did not favour the change in the status quo of Southeast Europe and preferred the stability of the Ottoman Empire. The involvement of and manipulation by the Western Powers during the independence struggles and modernisation were inevitable and re-created a feeling of suspicion towards the West. After the 1917 revolution Russia ceased to exist as orthodox centre. In the Balkans the alliances that were conducted during the Balkan Wars determined the inclinations of the Balkan states in the two World Wars. The end of WWII brought in Europe a new division between East and West. The Balkans, after the Yalta conference, fell under the influence of Stalin's Soviet Union. During WWII some Balkan states such as Greece, Serbia and Montenegro had fought against the Axis Powers and some such as Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Turkey allied with or passively helped the Axis Powers. Religious nationalism and unsettled differences appeared again during that period but the ideological do mination of communism froze the resolution once again. The logic of the cold war era was starting to take place. The biggest part of Eastern Europe became the Eastern Bloc. Greece was the only orthodox country that escaped Communism but paid a terrible price with a bloody civil war that followed WWII and left deep scars in the political life of the country.

The changes in Eastern Europe and the fall of Communism brought the revival of religion and nationalism once again to the fore. These changes initiated Huntington's idea that geopolitical breaches between civilisations will replace the political or ideological borders of the Cold-War as the sparks for new conflicts. This view, although interesting, is rather problematic as is the use of religious criteria (Western Christianity, Orthodox Christianity and Islam) in order to underline the separating lines between 'enemy' civilisations. This separation is a deception as it places together Protestants and the Catholics in one category of 'western Christians' ignoring the history of religious wars and dogmatic differences. In fact, the differences between Catholics and Orthodox, are fewer than between Catholics and Protestants, and the two churches have been discussing their reunification for years. In addition, Catholics in Latin America are strangely left out of western Christianity, possibly for financial reason s. Similarly Orthodox Christians are also excluded from Western civilisation and comprise the orthodox bloc or as Huntington puts it a 'Slav-Orthodox' civilisation. The problem is that not all Slavs are Orthodox: Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia come to mind. Not all Orthodox are Slavs including Romania, Greece, Georgia and 35 per cent of Albanians. The idea of a single entity in eastern Europe, whose existence many suspected, seems to have more to do with a pre-existing civilisation - the geopolitical and cultural space created initially by the Roman Empire - and less with the religious element. The perception of 'Orthodoxy' as a single unit, therefore, implies some significant selective assumptions and is of questionable analytical use.

The mystical and exotic colours that orthodoxy is usually painted with, mostly by Westerners, in comparison with the logic and law of the West, is also faulty. During the Middle Ages in the west, the Roman legal system was in power in the Eastern Roman Empire. The conception of imperial authority, together with the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet and the preservation of ancient Greek manuscripts and culture by Byzantine scholars, were among the most important contributions of the Byzantine Empire to posterity. Byzantine scholars who visited Italy as individuals or imperial envoys in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries exerted a strong influence on the Italian Renaissance. The Palaeologan revival of elements of Greek Classicism, especially in encyclopedism, history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, was transmitted to a rarefied audience of Italian scholars and Greek residents of Italy.

The revived talk about colliding civilisations looks like a desperate and simplistic effort in the post-Cold War era to define the new 'barbarians'. The notion of 'religious wars', after the alliance between the Christian Croats and Bosnia's Muslims against the Christian Serbs, seemed also to fade. Similarly it becomes problematic to explain Russia's support for Muslim Abkhazia against Orthodox Georgia, or Romania's and Bulgaria's willingness to back NATO against the Serbs. It is also difficult, in this light, to explain Russia's ties with Iran, or Azerbaijan's with the West. The idea of an orthodox block however seems to create more confusion in Greece, a member of Nato and the EU, as the Greek identity is a mix of classical Greek (thus European and Western) and Byzantine/Orthodox (thus Eastern and Oriental). Its internal split is demonstrated in the recent conflict between the Greek Church and government concerning the inscription - or not - of the holder's religion on the country's new identification card. Furthermore, other eastern Europeans could not possibly feel or be outside western civilisation when their histories and cultures have been interconnected for centuries. Culture, religion and heritage are all significant factors in the creation of identity and consequently in political life and policy. This realisation however cannot provide an easy guide to explain everything. It means we must define how culture and religion influence international affairs, in which cases and under what circumstances. Finally we must ask to what analytical use these results may be put for future studies.
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Author:Kotzias, Konstantinos
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Jun 1, 2001
Words:3042
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