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New Challenges in Eastern Europe

Although freedom has come – finally – to Eastern Europe, that freedom brings new challenges to Christians.

One by one the concrete blocks crumbled. Euphoric crowds, undaunted by the December cold, chiseled away at the symbol of their division and imprisonment. Swarms of students scaled the wall’s heights triumphantly uncorking bottles of champagne. The Berlin Wall’s metamorphosis from an inanimate object of hate into a living wall of human emotion and pathos was swift and unexpected.

Throughout Eastern Europe, similar transformations, no less dramatic, continue to change the face of the former communist block. Now reality has replaced euphoria. Eastern Europe’s economy is in shambles. Centuries-old attempts to homogenize and suppress have erupted into a violent display of nationalist fervor. For the “hotbed of Europe,” the 20th century is ending the way it began – in confusion.

Freedom presents new dilemmas for Christianity. No longer is the church threatened by militant communism, a well-defined persecutor, but rather by undefined freedoms. In some countries, this is complimented by conditions close to anarchy. The communists’ attempt to destroy religion may have failed. Unhappily though, religion may destroy itself. Rival ethnic groups, bolstered by centuries of support and belief in their own religious affiliations, continue to march under their own banners.

Eastern Europe is a historical labyrinth. With the exception of Poland, national boundaries were nonexistent. Ethnic groups were separated by political boundries drawn with little regard to culture and geography. Family, faith and tradition kept alive the ethnic identities of those suppressed. Their most powerful ingredient was faith.

Until the 19th and early 20th centuries, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia did not exist as modern political entities. They were lands disputed among the powerful Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires. The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, like Armenia and the Ukraine, were part of the Russian Empire. Today, these countries are an uneasy amalgamation of ethnic minorities, their muscles flexed after centuries of suppression.

Fused with this ethnic fervor is the rebirth of Christianity. In each country, Christianity is directly linked to the development of the modern state. Eastern Europe comprises a mix of the Christian churches. Throughout most of the region, Eastern Orthodoxy is intimately united with the culture and history of the people. Roman Catholicism is the historical faith in modern Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Croatia in northeastern Yugoslavia. The majority of ethnic Estonians and Latvians are members of the reformed, primarily Lutheran, congregations.

The death of Soviet-style communism has not solved Eastern Europe’s problems. Actually, communism’s swift demise has partially contributed to the escalation of tensions that plague the fledgling democracies.

In the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine, serious questions surround the relationship between the Russian Orthodox and the Byzantine Catholic Churches. The Byzantine Catholic Church, steeped in Orthodox ritual and tradition yet loyal to the pope, was fiercely persecuted by the Soviet regime. In 1946, Byzantine Catholic clergy were imprisoned, churches closed or transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church and believers forced to become Orthodox. Overnight, a community of 5 million disappeared.

However, the Ukraine’s Byzantine Catholics have reappeared after 43 years of persecution. Over the decades thousands have assembled for illegal liturgies in fields and forests in the western Ukraine. In September 1989, an estimated 100,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Lvov, the hub of Byzantine Catholicism. Carrying icons, banners and the illegal blue and yellow Ukrainian flag, the protestors demanded the legalization of their faith and the restoration of church buildings. Others cried for their political freedom.

The Russian Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches share the same liturgy, the same traditions and the same faith. Yet what divides the churches is an embarrassing political history. Ukrainians claim that the Orthodox Church Russifies minorities. The Orthodox claim that Ukrainian Catholics are responsible for the move towards Ukrainian secession. Ecumenical dialogue, therefore, faces a period of troubled uncertainty.

Christianity faces similar challenges in Romania. Though the Byzantine Catholic Church is smaller, its 1.5 million members nevertheless suffered a fate similar to their sisters and brothers in the Ukraine.

In late January, the provisional government which replaced President Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship annuled the 1948 decree which abolished the Byzantine Catholic Church. Romania’s Orthodox bishops, criticized for their acquiescence to the communist regime, published a decree which states that “the Romanian Orthodox Church, in a fraternal spirit, renews its relations with the various churches of our country, in the hope of promoting national unity.” Some interpret this as a sign of reconciliation with the Catholic minority.

In Bulgaria, the communist government had instituted a plan to “Bulgarize” ethnic Turks. Use of the Turkish language was forbidden, Turkish names were replaced with Slavic forms and Islamic religious expression curtailed. Bulgaria’s 100,000 Pomaks, ethnic Bulgars who converted to Islam during Ottoman times, suffered even harsher treatments. Consequently, more than 300,000 Bulgarian Turks fled to Turkey in late 1989 before the Turkish government sealed the borders to stem the human tide.

Since the overthrow of the hard line communist government of Todor Zhivkov, initiatives to restore political and civil rights to the Turkish minority have encountered considerable opposition from Bulgarians.

Yugoslavia, a multiethnic state composed of seven autonomous republics, is on the brink of civil war. In the Republic of Kosovo, leaders of the forceful Serbian minority stripped ethnic Albanians, traditionally Muslim, of any authority.

The resurgence of Serbian nationalism coincides with the emergence of the powerful Serbian Orthodox Church, the state religion in the pre-World War II Yugoslavian monarchy. This rebirth conflicts with the western-oriented Croats and Slovenians who are wary of a Serbian-dominated state. The Croats and Slovenians are primarily Roman Catholic Slavs. Christianity in the land of the “Southern Slavs” has reached the crisis point.

The Jewish community, once an integral component of Eastern European society, is practically extinct. Those few Jews who survived the Holocaust have emigrated mainly to Israel or the United States. Many Jews remain in the Soviet Union. Yet, with the rise of Russian nationalism, world Jewry fears a revival of anti-semitism and its deadly pogroms.

Though the reports of discord and destruction are discouraging, Eastern Europe has not reached the point of despair. On the contrary, there is much hope. Because of its political and moral opposition to the communist regimes, Christianity commands considerable respect. With the overthrow of these regimes and in the climate of glasnost, churches can now concentrate on reformation. Previous matters concerned mere self-preservation.

Yet Christianity faces an enormous challenge – the challenge to transcend socio-economic and ethnic differences and practice, as well as preach, tolerance and mutual respect.

Is faith in God dead? Not quite. Militant communists labored to eliminate God and the work of God’s people. They failed. The church in Eastern Europe, long considered dormant, is now awake, alive and vibrant. No longer threatened by an external body, Christianity is challenged by the vitality and enthusiasm of its members.

Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.

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