East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 1999, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Religious Freedom After Communism: Will the Suppressed Become the Suppressor?

Henry R. Huttenbach

The demise of Communist rule opened the way for the revival of religious life.  But, as with the struggle between majority and minority ethnic populations, so did there emerge among religious leaders a bitter battle between the principles of religious uniformity and pluralism.  Not surprisingly, those representing dominant faiths tended to harbor little tolerance for minority faiths.

It has long been falsely argued that religion per se embodies the principle of tolerance.  There is, of course, little evidence for this.  The rapid revival of the Russian Orthodox Church in particular, and Orthodoxy in general in Eastern Europe, has demonstrated a high degree of intolerance and insensitivity toward "sister" religions.  Indeed, why should one expect anything else from organizations that rest their teachings on the absolute rectitude of their truths, on inflexible dogmas, and immutable doctrines?  These are recipes for intolerance and, if given the power, opportunities for suppression.  In virtually all the ex-communist countries there is ferocious lobbying by clerics for monopoly status or, at least, primacy on the basis of tradition.

To wrestle on behalf of religious tolerance in the cultures of Eastern Europe, where ethnicity and religious affiliations are almost synonymous, is to struggle upstream.  Biased cultural habits and traditions are not easily tamed.  Doctrinal and historic rivalries over jurisdictions, property, and land will be exacerbated as ethnic wars (hot and cold) are fought in the same areas.  Contested land becomes "sacred" land, disputes become "crusades," and language and education become the "holy" words and teachings of the faithful.

As specific religious disputes mount from Kosovo to Tajikistan, so will ethnic ones intensify and vice versa.  Ukraine is a case in point, where at least three overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions and loyalties are at loggerheads.  All three tend to fuel regionalist identities at the expense of Ukrainian integration.  From week to week, these rivalries have done little toward furthering a dialogue of tolerance.  On the contrary.

And if intrafaith controversies cause intractable divisiveness, then interfaith ones are no less destructive, fomenting climates of mutual fear and recrimination.  In Russia the established Orthodox Church is, for example, actively against Baptists, foreign minorities, [and] missionaries. In the Balkans, efforts at religio-inspired ethnic cleansing have taken place in every country and region, the local clergy rarely exercising moderating influences.  In Poland, the Catholic hierarchy has done next to nothing to discourage outbursts of anti-Semitism.  Muslim minorities throughout the Balkans face uncertain futures.  In turn, Christian minorities in Caucasia (outside of Armenia and Georgia) experience increasing episodes of intolerance from Muslim majorities.  To be sure, anti-Russian ethnic sentiments compound these incidents.  Nevertheless, one does not hear many voices of restraint coming from the mullahs.

In all, there is a growing atmosphere of religious intolerance in postcommunist Europe coming on the heels of Communist-inspired anti-religious persecution.  It would indeed be a bitter irony--though by no means a surprising development--if the region has evolved from one of suppression of religions (suppression of churches) to religious oppression (oppression by churches).

Henry R. Huttenbach is professor of history at City College of New York and editor of Analysis of Current Events, published by the Association for the Study of Nationalities.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Analysis of Current Events 7 (June 1996):  2-3.

Henry R. Huttenbach, "Religious Freedom After Communism:  Will the Suppressed Become the Suppressor?" East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Winter 1999), 16.

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© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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