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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

The Ottoman Empire began crumbling in the early 19th century. Orthodox subjects liberated from Turkish rule in the 19th century include Greece (1833), Romania (1864), Bulgaria (1871), Serbia (1879), and Albania (1937). As these nations emerged from Turkish rule, the role of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople diminished in favor of national churches. The churches of these countries became autocephalous, or autonomous and self-governing, although the ecumenical patriarch was still regarded as "first among equals." The autocephalous churches in Russia and the former Ottoman territories became state churches, closely allied with nationalist sensibilities and funded by the government.

At the start of the 20th century, two historic events occurred that were to have far-reaching consequences for Eastern Orthodoxy. Russia underwent the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and the Communist ideology was strongly anti-religious. In 1922, the Greek armies were defeated in the Greco-Turkish war, which led to the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. Under the provisions of the Treaty of Lausanne, Greece and Turkey engaged in an exchange of populations in 1923. Both of these events hastened the emigration of Orthodox Christians to the west, a phenomenon that had already gathered momentum prior to World War I.

The transfer of Christian populations from Turkey to Greece reduced the size of the church in Istanbul, the historical ecumenical patriarchate of Constantinople, to a few thousand. The ecumenical patriarch's congregations are now concentrated in Crete, western Europe, Australia, and North America. In Greece, the historic alliance between church and state weakened, especially in the latter part of the 20th century. By 1982, the authorities were allowing civil marriages as an alternative to marriage in the church. However, in Greek Cyprus, the relation between church and state seems as strong as ever.

In Russia, the militantly anti-religious stance of the Bolsheviks had serious consequences for the church. Land and properties were seized and most churches, monasteries, and church schools were closed. During the 1920s and 1930s, unknown numbers of Christians were executed, or died in prison. It is often said that more Christians died under Russian persecution than died under Roman persecution in the first few centuries of the second millennium. Christians were forced to worship in secret, and hide their faith from family members. Persecution was relaxed in 1943, when Stalin realized that Orthodoxy would assist in the war effort, but accelerated again after 1960. In the Soviet republics of eastern Europe after World War II, the anti-religious Communist regimes in Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and Albania also repressed the churches. In Albania, the government effectively erased all visible traces of the church's existence. The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to a reemergence of the Orthodox Churches in these countries.



Study Questions:
1.     How have politics changed the demographics of Eastern Orthodoxy’s followers?
2.     What can be said about the division of church and state within Eastern Orthodoxy’s contemporary history?
3.     How was Eastern Orthodoxy persecuted within the 20th century?

 

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