East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 8, No. 4, Fall 2000, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

The Religious Topography of Eastern Europe

Paul Mojzes

More History Than Can Be Consumed
Eastern Europe is a veritable mosaic of religious communities. In this belt of countries, stretching from the Baltic to the Adriatic and Black Seas, four great clusters of religious communities meet--and collide. Eastern Ortho-doxy, Roman Catholicism, Islam, and Protestantism vie for the loyalty and adherence of, and even provide identity to, the rainbow of nationalities who have migrated, settled, and subjugated one another; who pursued or were pursued, then migrated again; who lost, gained, and again lost territories. These encounters are generally outside the pale of interest of the conventional historians in the West but are subject to endless squabbling and distortion by historians of the East. In the West the stories of these encounters bring about confusion or neglect. In the East they raise passion, hatred, and even wars, as each group views the events of the past and the present through incompatible lenses and contradictory accounts of the past that often shed more heat than light. Winston Churchill once allegedly said about the Balkans that the area produced more history than it could consume, a clever insight that tends to be valid for the entire Eastern European area.

Repeated Subjugation, the Rule
An astonishing variety of religious topography characterizes Eastern Europe. There are countries that are relatively homogeneous in their religious make-up, although the dominant religion differs from country to country. There are countries that are heterogeneous. In a few of the latter the multi-religious make-up causes some tensions but not great enough to cause the break-up of the country, while in others the strife has become open and has led to ethnoreligious wars.

What all the countries have in common is a series of great social changes throughout the twentieth century. Many of these countries had been under long colonial occupation by their more powerful neighbors, which has left them a legacy of inferiority complexes covered up by illusions of grandeur. Most have gone through stages from feudalism via a short-lived capitalism into socialism and then into post-communism, all in a span of less than a century. They switched from monarchies to republics to people's democracies and back to republics, and a few of them are contemplating a return to monarchy. Practically none of them experienced genuine democracy (the exception is the Czech Republic) but have experienced many forms of authoritarian rule. Two great totalitarian ideologies, nazism and Communism, swept over the area, leaving a considerable imprint on the people's psyche. The ideology of modern nationalism has also held powerful sway in nearly all the countries, at least since the nineteenth century. Nationalism was able to adapt itself both during the right-wing fascist and the left-wing communist totalitarianism. It reemerged with various intensities in the post-communist period, often still tainted with leftover fascist and communist tendencies.

Nation Building on the Shoulders of Religious Identity
Most of the countries of the area became modern nation-states only in the twentieth century. While some scholars envision the end of the nation-state, Eastern Europe is experiencing the process of nation-building, which for some states is at its very beginning. During the nation-building stage the emphasis is on strategies of national unification; religion often becomes a factor in the affirmation of the collective identity. While the national collective identity was either suppressed or marginalized during the Communist period, in the post-communist period the unfinished task of building national identities came to the fore. The dominant historic religion of each country is making valiant efforts to regain its preeminent place in the life of a nation. Nationalistic politicians are eager to gain the support of religious leaders and institutions in this process, while leaders of majority religions are elated to move from the margins to the center of social influence.

Missionaries as "Spoilers" of Nation Building
Proselytizers and missionaries, however, appear to be obstacles in the process toward maximal homogenization and tend to arouse great resistance from both national political and traditional religious leaders. The majority of the population is agitated against them with the help of the mass media. Proselytizers often have not fully comprehended why and how threatening they are because they tend to be focused on more universal values such as "truth," "salvation," "supranational values," and multiculturalism, all of which are internationalist agenda, in contrast to the nationalist agenda of majority religions.

Eastern Europe is thus in the midst of a great clash of values. On the one hand is the right of collectives to define and defend themselves, and on the other hand is the individual's right to all civil liberties protected by law. Few believe that respect for every person's religious liberty will contribute to a more vital modern community.

Representatives of all religious groups, domestic and foreign, became very active in Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism, not only because there was now greater freedom to do so but also because Communism had been so inimical to all religions and had suppressed them so vigorously (though unevenly) that it appeared to religious people that they had a holy mandate to (re)turn the Eastern European population to a (or, in their mind, "the") religious path. To many proponents of religion it seemed as if the soul of their respective nation had been either driven out or driven into the deepest recesses of the nation's collective consciousness. They felt duty-bound by a divine mandate to attempt to redeem the soul of both the nation and individuals and to return it and them to the right relationship with the divine. 

Paul Mojzes is academic dean at Rosemont College, Rosemont, PA, and coeditor of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Paul Mojzes, "Religious Topography of Eastern Europe," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 36 (Winter-Spring 1999), 7-43.

Paul Mojzes, "The Religious Topography of Eastern Europe," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Fall  2000), 3-4.

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