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

Majority Versus Minority Faiths in Romania, Ukraine, and Poland

Julie Mertus and Kathryn Minyard Frost

Religion as a Political Tool
In Central and Eastern Europe, religion and national identity go hand-in-hand, and thus the project of reconstructing religious identity becomes synonymous with the revitalization of the nation. Both majority and minority nations find religion a useful tool in their attempt to reshape their identities and gain power. Only natural identity counts, an identity based on a "nature" that cannot be approached rationally. A person's religion is a matter of "natural identity." That is, Romanians are said to be "naturally" Orthodox; Ukrainians, also "naturally" Orthodox but of a Ukrainian Orthodox variety; and Poles, "naturally" Roman Catholic. In other words, authentic Romanians and Ukrainians are Orthodox, and an authentic Pole is Catholic. Those who step outside their natural designations--for example, those who chose a new religion or minority religion--are deemed traitors to their group. Those who have long been outside the majority "natural" designation are simply the "other," who may be tolerated but who need not be supported.

The public appropriation of religion by competing nations dilutes the message of faith and places at its core a corporate entity that is more concerned with power consolidation than with any religious doctrine. As such, religion in Central and Eastern Europe can be conceptualized as a form of civil religion, the purpose of which is "to sanctify modern pluralistic states supplying some common goals and visions to their citizens." (Rina Neeman and Nissan Rubin, "Ethnic Civil Religion: A Case Study of Immigrants from Romania in Israel," Sociology of Religion 57 (Summer 1996), 195.)

The civil religion of Central and Eastern European states and nations seeks to support a single set of values and symbols that represent their own goals and interests. Thus, states and nations often find themselves in conflict with those who exercise their new consumer ability to choose an alternative expression of faith, be it either the majority faith expressed in an alternative manner or a minority religion.

A Spectrum of Church-State Relations
State legal practices toward religion can be placed on a continuum: from measures that seek the elimination of a religion, such as laws attacking and dismantling a faith or a set of practices; to measures that permit the existence of a certain faith, such as laws of indifference; to measures that respect differing faiths, such as human rights and nondiscrimination laws; to measures working toward the development of religion generally or toward certain faiths, such as financial support of places of worship and religious education. Quite rapidly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Romania, Ukraine, and Poland tended to move away from measures restrictive of all religious faiths to a combination of measures reaching across the following spectrum: elimination/[state] attack, existence/[state] indifference, respect/human rights and legal guarantees, and development/[state] support.

For the most part, human-rights-watch groups have been able to note a vast improvement with respect to freedom of religion in Central and Eastern Europe because treatment toward most faiths tends to lie in the center of this continuum, hovering between existence (indifference) to respect (human rights). There are, in fact, few government restrictions on establishing and maintaining places of worship in Romania, Ukraine, or Poland, and for the most part states tolerate traditional minority religions. In Poland, for example, more than ninety-five percent of Poles are Roman Catholic, but Eastern Orthodox, Ukrainian Catholic, and much smaller Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim congregations exist and are treated with respect and/or indifference by the government.

State Preferences for Majority Faiths
Countries tend to be on the right side of the continuum--that is, the development (support) side--and on the left side of the continuum--that is, the elimination (attack) side--only with respect to new religions brought in by outsiders. For example, the government of Poland favors the Catholic majority in many respects; in particular, it allows the Roman Catholic Church special access to television-station frequencies while denying such privileges to other faiths. Similarly, the government of Romania grants the Orthodox Church special tax breaks and favors Orthodox clergy in their quest to (re)gain land appropriated by the previous regime, while denying similar requests by Greek Catholics and other minority religions.

Under such conditions Protestants in Poland worry that they may have been better off under the Communists than under the Catholicized new government. Likewise, Baptists and ethnic Hungarian Protestants in Romania are concerned that they will suffer more under the increasingly Romanian Orthodox-driven state than under the prior regime.

For members of the majority religion in many parts of Central and Eastern Europe, religion has become a sociopoliti-cal safety measure, a way of reaffirming one's identity with the dominant nation. In these cases, identity with the "national religion" easily becomes a tool of political elites who then manipulate it to dredge up fear of the other. 

Julie Mertus is assistant professor of law at Ohio Northern University, Ada, OH, and the author of  Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War (University of California Press, 1999). Kathryn Minyard Frost is a lecturer in educational psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, TX.

Edited excerpt reprinted with permission from Julie Mertus and Kathryn Minyard Frost, "Faith and (In)Tolerance of Minority Religions: A Comparative Analysis of Romania, Ukraine, and Poland," Journal of Ecumenical Studies 36 (Winter-Spring 1999), 65-80.

Julie Mertus and Kathryn Minyard Frost, "Majority Versus Minority Faiths in Romania, Ukraine, and Poland," East-West Church & Ministry Report 8 (Fall  2000), 5-6.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

© 2000 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

EWC&M Report | Contents | Search Back Issues | From Our Readers | Subscribe