Thursday, March 15, 2007

Religion in the CEE region

The churches in the ex-communist world have swapped persecution for the periphery

Churches in eastern Europe


From The Economist print edition

Religion in central and eastern Europe is waning—and plagued by scandal

PERSECUTED, valiant and victorious. That was how the churches of eastern Europe seemed in 1989. It was a flattering picture. In truth, totalitarianism spawned heroism, treachery and corruption in the church, as in other parts of life. It also stunted thinking on ecumenism and tolerance. Now secularism is shrivelling some churches, especially mainstream Protestant ones. Others have retreated into steamy nationalist ghettos, sometimes in cahoots with the new authorities. Everywhere disturbing, long-hidden questions are emerging about collaboration with the communists. It is not an uplifting picture.

Religious freedom is still an issue. Nothing matches the persecution of believers in such totalitarian places as Belarus or Turkmenistan. But minority denominations face tiresome legal obstacles, especially in countries with big traditional churches. Romania's new religion law, rushed through parliament last year, requires 12 years' existence and 22,000 members for full registration. Churches with fewer than 300 members are not allowed to own property or have paid employees. The law bolsters the majority Romanian Orthodox Church, freeing it from legal challenges over communist-era property seizures from rival churches (when, as now, it worked closely with the state). Opponents plan to challenge the law in the European Court of Human Rights.

Elsewhere in the Balkans the story is similar, especially in places where (as in England, Denmark and Norway) a “national church” enjoys power underpinned by the state. Macedonia's authorities protect the local Orthodox church from its Serbian neighbour, whose priests, seen by patriotic Macedonians as agents of Serbia, may not cross the border wearing clerical garb. “The sort of thing you would expect in Turkey,” sniffs Felix Corley of Forum 18, a religious-freedom watchdog. The Serbian Orthodox archbishop in Macedonia has been jailed twice: once for publishing a calendar that challenged the Macedonian hierarchy's view of church affairs and “causing national, racial and religious hatred and intolerance”; the second time for embezzlement of church funds.

Meanwhile the Serbian Orthodox monasteries of Kosovo—where a couple of dozen churches were wrecked or damaged by ethnic Albanians in 2004—are watching talks on the province's political future nervously. This week monks at the medieval monastery of Decani were urging NATO's supreme commander, General John Craddock, to continue protecting them if and when Kosovo becomes an independent, Albanian-dominated state.

Then there is politics. In some places, the church hits a resonant, non-partisan note. A Lithuanian archbishop, Sigitas Tamkevicius, who spent five years in the Soviet gulag, is an ardent and widely admired proponent of reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of communist crimes. Elsewhere, the church's involvement is more controversial. In Poland, where 90% of the population say they are Catholic, the ruling coalition displays ostentatious religiosity. The speaker of parliament crosses himself before taking his seat. Government supporters depict the opposition, ex-communists and liberal conservatives, as heathen secular liberals—by implication, not proper Poles.

Yet all is not what it seems. The church in Poland is divided between Vatican loyalists, who often oppose close involvement in politics, and energetic dissidents linked to Radio Maryja, a hardline broadcaster. This once had huge clout, articulating the feelings of Poles alienated by the country's brisk, materialist business culture and the decay in moral norms. But Radio Maryja's audience has shrunk in the past decade to no more than 2% of all current listeners. Voters who wanted a clean sweep and a new moral order have found that, although their favourite parties are in power, disappointingly little has changed.

Faith in the church's integrity has also been damaged by allegations that Stanislaw Wielgus, who stepped down as archbishop-designate of Warsaw, once co-operated with the communist secret services. Some sense a witch-hunt. Others welcome the breaking of a taboo. A new book based on secret-police records in Cracow claims 30 clergy and four bishops collaborated; some of those named deny it.

There are similar worries for the Catholic church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Cardinal Miloslav Vlk, the Czech primate, has called for clergy to be screened for co-operation with the secret police. But in most places involvement in politics is waning. On the burning moral issues of today, such as integrity in politics, public-spiritedness, honesty about history and compassion for the unfortunate, the churches seem to have little to say.

1 comment:

La Russophobe said...


Two questions --

(1) Do you have any thoughts on the rumor that Alexei II is KGB?

(2) Do you see a parallel between the way we thought of the religious communties (as innocent, perhaps heroic victims) and the way we thought of the populations more generally? Has our image been proved right in some cases (Poland) and wrong in others (Russia)?