The Crescent and the Cross - The Communities of God
Religion and Community in the Balkans
By: Sam Vaknin, Ph.D.
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Written: July, 2000
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"From the beginning, people of different
languages and religions were permitted to live in Christian lands
and cities, namely Jews, Armenians, Ismaelites, Agarenes and
others such as these, except that they do not mix with Christians,
but rather live separately. For this reason, places have been
designated for these according to ethnic group, either within the
city or without, so that they may be restricted to these and not
extend their dwelling beyond them."
Bishop Demetrios Khomatianos of Ohrid, late 12th century and early 13th century AD
"The Latins still have not been anathematized, nor has a great ecumenical council acted against them ... And even to this day this continues, although it is said that they still wait for the repentance of the great Roman Church."
"...do not overlook us, singing with deaf
ears, but give us your understanding, according to sacred
precepts, as you yourself inspired the apostles ... You see, Lord,
the battle of many years of your churches. Grant us humility,
quiet the storm, so that we may know in each other your mercy,
and we may not forget before the end the mystery of your love ... May
we coexist in unity with each other, and become wise also, so
that we may live in you and in your eternal creator the Father
and in his only-begotten Word. You are life, love, peace, truth,
East European Studies Occasional Paper, Number 47, "Christianity and Islam in Southeastern Europe - Slavic Orthodox Attitudes toward Other Religions", Eve Levin, January 1997
"...you faced the serpent and the enemy of
God's churches, having judged that it would have been unbearable
for your heart to see the Christians of your fatherland
overwhelmed by the Moslems (izmailteni); if you could not
accomplish this, you would leave the glory of your kingdom on
earth to perish, and having become purple with your blood, you
would join the soldiers of the heavenly kingdom. In this way,
your two wishes were fulfilled. You killed the serpent, and you
received from God the wreath of martyrdom."
Mateja Matejic and Dragan Milivojevic, "An Anthology of Medieval Serbian Literature in English", Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1978
Any effort to understand the modern quagmire that is the Balkan must address religion and religious animosities and grievances. Yet, the surprising conclusion of such a study is bound to be that the role of inter-faith hatred and conflict has been greatly exaggerated. The Balkan was characterized more by religious tolerance than by religious persecution. It was a model of successful co-habitation and co-existence even of the bitterest enemies of the most disparate backgrounds. Only the rise of the modern nation-state exacerbated long-standing and hitherto dormant tensions. Actually, the modern state was established on a foundation of artificially fanned antagonism and xenophobia.
Religions in the Balkan were never monolithic enterprises. Competing influences, paranoia, xenophobia and adverse circumstances all conspired to fracture the religious landscape. Thus, for instance, though officially owing allegiance to the patriarch in Constantinople and the Orthodox "oikumene", both Serb and Bulgarian churches collaborated with the rulers of the day against perceived Byzantine (Greek and Russian) political encroachment in religious guise. The southern Slav churches rejected both the theology and the secular teachings of the "Hellenics" and the "Romanians" (Romans). In turn, the Greek church held the Slav church in disregard and treated the peasants of Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Albania to savage rounds of tax collection. The Orthodox, as have all religions, berated other confessions and denominations. But Orthodoxy was always benign - no "jihad", no bloodshed, no forced conversions and no mass expulsions - perhaps with the exception of the forcible treatment of the Bogomils.
It was all about power and money, of course. Bishops and archbishops did not hesitate to co-opt the Ottoman administration against their adversaries. They had their rivals arrested by the Turks or ex-communicated them. Such squabbles were common. But they never amounted to more than a Balkanian comedia del-arte. Even the Jews - persecuted all over western Europe - were tolerated and attained prominence and influence in the Balkan. One Bulgarian Tsar divorced his wife to marry a Jewess. Southern Orthodox Christianity (as opposed to the virulent and vituperative Byzantine species) has always been pragmatic. The minorities (Jews, Armenians, Vlachs) were the economic and financial backbone of their societies. And the Balkan was always a hodge-podge of ethnicities, cultures and religions. Shifting political fortunes ensured a policy of "hedging one's bets".
The two great competitors of Orthodox Christianity in the tight market of souls were Catholicism and Islam. The former co-sponsored with the Orthodox Church the educational efforts of Cyril and Methodius. Even before the traumatic schism of 1054, Catholics and nascent Orthodox were battling over (lucrative) religious turf in Bulgaria.
The schism was a telling affair. Ostensibly, it revolved around obscure theological issues (who begat the Holy Spirit - the Father alone or jointly with the Son as well as which type of bread should be used in the Eucharist). But really it was a clash of authorities and interests - the Pope versus the patriarch of Constantinople, the Romans versus the Greeks and Slavs. Matters of jurisdiction coalesced with political meddling in a confluence of ill-will that has simmered for at least two centuries. The southern (Slav) Orthodox churches contributed to the debate and supported the Greek position. Sects such as the Hesychasts were more Byzantine than the Greeks and denounced wavering Orthodox clergy. Many a south Orthodox pilloried the Catholic stance as an heresy of Armenian or Apollinarian or Arian origin - thus displaying their ignorance of the subtler points of the theological debate. They also got wrong the Greek argumentation regarding the bread of the Eucharist and the history of the schism. But zeal compensated for ignorance, as is often the case in the Balkan.
What started as a debate - however fervent - about abstract theology became an all out argument about derided customs and ceremonies. Diet, dates and divine practices all starred in these grotesque exchanges. The Latin ate unclean beasts. They used five fingers to cross themselves. They did not sing Hallelujah. They allowed the consumption of dairy products in Lent. The list was long and preposterous. The parties were spoiling for a fight. As is so often the case in this accursed swathe of the earth, identity and delusional superiority were secured through opposition and self-worth was attained through defiance. By relegating them to the role of malevolent heretics, the Orthodox made the sins of the Catholics unforgivable, their behaviour inexcusable, their fate sealed.
At the beginning, the attacks were directed at the "Latins" - foreigners from Germany and France. Local Catholics were somehow dissociated and absolved from the diabolical attributes of their fellow-believers abroad. They used the same calendar as the Orthodox (except for Lent) and similarly prayed in Church Slavonic. The only visible difference was the recognition of papal authority by the Catholics. Catholicism presented a coherent and veteran alternative to Orthodoxy's inchoate teachings. Secular authorities were ambiguous about how to treat their Catholic subjects and did not hesitate to collaborate with Catholic authorities against the Turks. Thus, to preserve itself as a viable religious alternative, the Orthodox church had to differentiate itself from the Holy See. Hence, the flaming debates and pejorative harangues.
The second great threat was Islam. Still, it was a latecomer. Catholicism and Orthodoxy have been foes since the ninth century. Four hundreds years later, Byzantine wars against the Moslems were a distant thunder and raised little curiosity and interest in the Balkan. The Orthodox church was acquainted with the tenets of Islamic faith but did not bother to codify its knowledge or record it. Islam was, to it, despite its impeccable monotheistic credentials, an exotic Oriental off-shoot of tribal paganism.
Thus, the Turkish invasion and the hardships of daily life under Ottoman rule found Orthodoxy unprepared. It reacted the way we all react to fear of the unknown: superstitions, curses, name calling. On the one hand, the Turkish enemy was dehumanized and bedevilled. It was perceived to be God's punishment upon the unfaithful and the sinful. On the other hand, in a curious transformation or a cognitive dissonance, the Turks became a divine instrument, the wrathful messengers of God. The Christians of the Balkan suffered from a post traumatic stress syndrome. They went through the classical phases of grief. They started by denying the defeat (in Kosovo, for instance) and they proceeded through rage, sadness and acceptance.
All four phases co-existed in Balkan history. Denial by the many who resorted to mysticism and delusional political thought. That the Turks failed for centuries to subdue pockets of resistance (for instance in Montenegro) served to rekindle these hopes and delusions periodically. Thus, the Turks (and, by extension, Islam) served as a politically cohering factor and provided a cause to rally around. Rage manifested through the acts against the occupying Ottomans of individuals or rebellious groups. Sadness was expressed in liturgy, in art and literature, in music and in dance. Acceptance by conceiving of the Turks as the very hand of God Himself. But, gradually, the Turks and their rule came to be regarded as the work of the devil as it was incurring the wrath of God.
But again, this negative and annihilating attitude was reserved to outsiders and foreigners, the off-spring of Ishmael and of Hagar, the Latins and the Turks. Moslem or Catholic neighbours were rarely, if ever, the target of such vitriolic diatribes. External enemies - be they Christian or Moslem - were always to be cursed and resisted. Neighbours of the same ethnicity were never to be punished or discriminated against for their religion or convictions - though half-hearted condemnations did occur. The geographical and ethnic community seems to have been a critical determinant of identity even when confronted with an enemy at the gates. Members of an ethnic community could share the same religious faith as the invader or the heretic - yet this detracted none from their allegiance and place in their society as emanating from birth and long term residence. These tolerance and acceptance prevailed even in the face of Ottoman segregation of religious communities in ethnically-mixed "millets". This principle was shattered finally by the advent of the modern nation-state and its defining parameters (history and language), real or (more often) invented. One could sometimes find members of the same nuclear family - but of different religious affiliation. Secular rulers and artisans in guilds collaborated unhesitatingly with Jews, Turks and Catholics. Conversions to and fro were common practice, as ways to secure economic benefits. These phenomena were especially prevalent in the border areas of Croatia and Bosnia. But everyone, throughout the Balkan, shared the same rituals, the way of life, the superstitions, the magic, the folklore, the customs and the habits regardless of religious persuasion.
Where religions co-existed, they fused syncretically. Some Sufi sects (mainly among the Janiccary) adopted Catholic rituals, made the sign of the cross, drank alcohol and ate pork. The followers of Bedreddin were Jews and Christians, as well as Moslems. Everybody shared miraculous sites, icons, even prayers. Orthodox Slavs pilgrims to the holy places in Palestine were titled "Hadzi" and Moslems were especially keen on Easter eggs and holy water as talismans of health. Calendars enumerated the holidays of all religions, side by side. Muslim judges ("kadis") married Muslim men to non-Muslim women and inter-marriage was rife. They also married and divorced Catholic couples, in contravention of the Catholic faith. Orthodox and Catholic habitually intermarried and interbred.
That this background yielded Srebrenica and Sarajevo, Kosovo and Krajina is astounding. It is the malignant growth of this century. It is the subject of our next installment.
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