Religious and cultural context of Balkans overlooked

By on June 1, 1999

OUR SECULARIZED Western society may have failed to appreciate the full significance of the religious and cultural context in the Balkans. The cultural fault-lines lie three ways. The first two fall between the Eastern and Western halves of the Roman Empire, with their respective capital cities in Constantinople and Rome. The Eastern half was Orthodox, the Western half Roman and the dividing line fell in the Balkan area. These two churches excommunicated each other in 1054 as a result of Papal claims. Disastrously, the Fourth Crusade in 1204 sacked Constantinople, killing Muslims and Eastern Orthodox in large numbers and desecrating the Cathedral. The East thenceforth constantly feared the Latin West and its amalgam of military power and Roman religion. The third fault line came with the arrival of Islam and the Ottoman Empire. The Roman Catholic Croats faced the Orthodox Serbs and the Muslims, overlapping both. Orthodox “Mother Russia” is the great source of hope and help to be called on in distress. Another key politico-religious factor is the memory of the Nazi occupation and the Nazi-Croatian alliance in the form of the Ustasha. Croatia was to be purified of its large Serbian Orthodox minority of which a third was to be exterminated, a third deported and the remainder forcibly converted to Roman Catholicism. Great brutality was meted out to the Orthodox, and the Franciscan order played a hideous part in this, reviving the worrying image of the feared amalgam between western militarism and religion. Kurt Waldheim, an officer in Wermacht units with less than savoury record in such operations, was later made a papal knight. The Orthodox Serbs fear the West and fear its intentions. American military aid to the Croats in the last bout of Balkan warring was taken as more of the same. Why, for example, did the West not help the thousands of Orthodox who have been expelled from Turkey and where their one theological college was recently closed by the authorities? The religious undercurrent remains a strong factor fuelling deep hatred and resentment of Western political intentions. Such historical and cultural reminders do not, of course, excuse Serbian brutality one whit. But a bare knowledge of this religio-cultural mindset might possibly have alerted Western politicians and generals to the likely effort of a massive onslaught from what is perceived as essentially the same dreaded combination of military power and hatred for their religion – and that reaction was very unlikely to have been a considered and rational one, rather then overflowing fury and increased violence towards the nearest victims to hand. The Serbian Orthodox Church has an important role to play in bringing the gospel into the national life at this time, quelling violent spirits and seeking peace. Ecumenically this war will have very negative consequences. It is hardly surprising that the Greeks are very anxious indeed. We are left with the uneasy question, as churches, of whether the Christian bond across nations and cultures is of any significance at all in combating war. Consequently we must fall back on prayer. Prayer first and urgently that the loss of life will cease, that atrocities and human rights abuses will cease and that the bombing will cease and that all parties will return to the negotiating table. Prayer second, that the traumatized peoples of the former Yugoslavia can rebuild their traditions, cultures and infrastructures to approach the task of building an enduring peace in which all ethnic groups can co-exist harmoniously. Prayer third, that the demonic influence of one-sided and deep-seated historic memory will be exorcised so that turning away from the grip of narrow nationalism, the peoples of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia can face the future with a clean slate, that only the crucified and resurrected Christ truly gives us. This article appeared as the editorial comment in the April 1 edition of The Church of England Newspaper. Reprinted by permission.

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