Tag Archives: Orthodoxy

BBC Essay on the Armenian Church in Myanmar

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Photo from the BBC

From the BBC’s News Magazine, here’s a lovely essay, “The Last Armenians of Myanmar,” about a small Armenian parish church, St. John the Baptist, in the capital city of Yangon. The Armenian community built the church in 1862, when the country was still known as Burma, and the city as Rangoon.The Armenians had come to Rangoon in the 18th century from Iran, by way of British India, following the trade routes.They established close ties to the Burmese monarchy, which donated the land for the church in the center of the city.

As its title suggests, the essay has a wistful, elegiac tone. Hardly any Armenians remain in Myanmar today– most departed for Australia after World War II – and the parish gets only a handful of worshipers on Sundays. But the situation is not altogether grim. Faithful parishioners continue to maintain the church lovingly– photos of the interior make it look Victorian and vaguely Episcopalian – and the liturgy is said every Sunday by Fr. John Felix, a South Indian convert from Anglicanism. The choir continues to sing the hymns in classical Armenian.

There is hope that two things will work to preserve the building. First, as Myanmar opens to the world, international tourism is increasing. As one of the the city’s principal historic landmarks, the church should benefit. Second, the church has become the focal point for the small Orthodox community in Yangon, not just Armenians:

Already diplomats, business visitors and tourists from a range of Orthodox countries and churches – Russian, Greek, Serbian – occasionally swell the numbers at St John the Baptist, the only Orthodox church in Myanmar’s biggest city.

A new worshiper here, Ramona Tarta, is Romanian, a globetrotting business woman, publisher and events organizer who has lived in Yangon for the last few months.

“My faith is very important to me. Wherever I am in the world, I seek out an Orthodox church. But I was about to give up on Yangon. I thought it was the only city I’d ever lived in which had no Orthodox place of worship,” she complains.

She chanced across the Armenian church when driving past, and believes that with a little promotion, this historic building – and the tradition to which it bears testimony – could have a more secure future.

There’s a lesson here. Many of these Orthodox Churches have been out of communion for thousands of years. Formally, they are not supposed to worship together. But at the ends of the earth, and surrounded by people for whom these sectarian differences mean nothing, Christians somehow manage to cooperate. A hopeful example of practical ecumenism that Christians everywhere should keep in mind.

“Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia: A Source Book on Lived Religion” (Coleman ed.)

This month, Indiana University Press is releasing “Orthodox Christianity in Imperial Russia: A Source Book on Lived Religion” edited by Heather J. Coleman (University of Alberta). The publisher’s description follows:

From sermons and clerical reports to personal stories of faith, this book of translated primary documents reveals the lived experience of Orthodox Christianity in 19th- and early 20th-century Russia. These documents allow us to hear the voices of educated and uneducated writers, of clergy and laity, nobles and merchants, workers and peasants, men and women, Russians and Ukrainians. Orthodoxy emerges here as a multidimensional and dynamic faith. Beyond enhancing our understanding of Orthodox Christianity as practiced in Imperial Russia, this thoughtfully edited volume offers broad insights into the relationship between religious narrative and social experience and reveals religion’s central place in the formation of world views and narrative traditions.

Mihai, “Orthodox Canon Law Reference Book”

In May, Holy Cross Orthodox Press released Orthodox Canon Law Reference Book, by Vasile Mihai. The publisher’s description follows:

In one manageable volume, Orthodox Canon Law Reference Book makes the canons of the Orthodox Church, which were written and complied over centuries, searchable and accessible to current inquirers. In his preface, Fr. Mihai explains the place of canons in relation to revealed faith and the personal experience of God s presence. A most valuable introduction distinguishes between Canon Law and secular law, and not only discusses how to interpret canons, but also offers several examples demonstrating the interpretive process of analysis and application. Alphabetized topics organize the pertinent canons, which are then listed chronologically under each topic. Numerous footnotes offer explanations for terms and understandings from historical contexts. Three appendices discuss the meaning of the word canon, the priest-penitent relationship, and Byzantine legislation on homosexuality.

Conference: “The Making of Jerusalem” (Jerusalem, July 2-4)

The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Jerusalem in hosting a conference, “The Making of Jerusalem: Constructed Spaces and Historic Communities,” from July 2 to July 4:

Jerusalem is one of the most contested cities around the world with a rich and complex history. With its web of sacred sites, quarters, and neighbourhoods, it represents a polyglot of historical communities. Today’s Jerusalem is a testament to its temporal, physical and demographic transformations over the centuries. The purpose of this inter-disciplinary conference is to explore various aspects in the making of the city while focusing on historic communities and their concept of – and relationship with – space (be it sacred or secular). It brings together papers from different fields such as history, the social sciences, art, literature, religious studies and area studies, emphasising the Early Modern and Modern periods.

Details are here.

“Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe” (Leustean, ed.)

This July, Fordham University Press will publish Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europeedited by Lucian N. Orthodox ChristianityLeustean (Aston University).  The publisher’s description follows.

Nation-building processes in the Orthodox commonwealth brought together political institutions and religious communities in their shared aims of achieving national sovereignty. Chronicling how the churches of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia acquired independence from the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s decline, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe examines the role of Orthodox churches in the construction of national identities.

Drawing on archival material available after the fall of communism in southeastern Europe and Russia, as well as material published in Greek, Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, and Russian, Orthodox Christianity and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Southeastern Europe analyzes the challenges posed by nationalism to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the ways in which Orthodox churches engaged in the nationalist ideology.

The Ukrainian Protests and the Orthodox Church(es)

Even casual observers know that Orthodox Churches traditionally have close ties with the state. So many in the West don’t know what to make of the fact that, in the current conflict in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church appears to be siding with the protesters. The New York Times, for example, reports that protesters running from riot police in Kiev take refuge in a historic Orthodox monastery, and that the Church’s patriarch, Filaret (above), strongly opposes the government. Filaret has stated that Ukraine should look West and join the European Union, and that President Victor Yanukovich, who recently announced that Ukraine would not agree to a long-anticipated trade deal with the EU, should resign.

To understand what’s going on, one has to know a little about the divisions within Orthodoxy in Ukraine. Patriarch Filaret is the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyvian Patriarchate. The Kyvian Patriarchate is in schism from the main body of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, which, as its name suggests, is under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow. The Moscow Patriarchate does not recognize the canonical status of the Kyvian Patriarchate; indeed, no Orthodox Church  in the world does. (To make things even more confusing, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA is under the jurisdiction of neither the Kyvian or Moscow Patriarchates, but the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople).

It’s not at all surprising, therefore, that Patriarch Filaret would support closer ties with Europe and a weakening of Russian influence in Ukraine. He and his flock are likely to have more status and independence in a Ukraine that looks toward the West. This is just another example of how religious and political interests often converge. As Daniel Larison writes, it will be interesting to see if there is now a pro-Russian pushback from those Ukrainians loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate.

Will the Hagia Sophia Again Become a Mosque?

When I heard the rumors this fall, I have to confess, I dismissed them. And maybe it is only political posturing. But leading Turkish officials are actually talking about converting the famed Hagia Sophia in Istanbul back into a mosque.

The Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom, was built by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. (“Solomon,” the emperor cried when he saw the completed church, “I have surpassed thee!”). For 1000 years, it was the largest Christian cathedral in the world and the emblem of Byzantium. After the empire fell in 1453, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque. About 500 years after that, the secular Kemalist government made it a museum. And so it has remained.

Now, however, a nationalist party has introduced legislation to reconvert the building to a Muslim place of worship. The idea has support at very high levels. In October, the imam at the neighboring Sultan Ahmet Mosque–a government official–called for Hagia Sophia to reopen as a mosque. Last month, at a public event in Istanbul, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, referred approvingly to two other churches-turned-mosques-turned-museums-turned-mosques-again, one in Trabzon and one in Iznik (once known as Nicea). And he made this comment about the Hagia Sophia itself: “We currently stand next to the Hagia Sophia Mosque. We are looking at a sad Hagia Sophia but hopefully we will see it smiling again soon.”

Arinc’s implication is unmistakable. According to the Religion News Service, Turkey’s ruling party, the Islamist AKP, is trying to shore up its base ahead of March provincial elections. It’s smart politics. AKP rank-and-file see Kemalism as a huge historical mistake and wish to return to the pan-Islamism of the Ottoman Empire. Converting Byzantine and other historical Christian monuments from museums into mosques is a way of rejecting secularism and returning to Turkish roots. The Hagia Sophia is the greatest symbol of all. That’s why, in the words of one observer, “Supporting the reopening of Hagia Sophia has become the litmus test of the true believer.”

When it comes to appropriating the temples of the vanquished, no great religion is innocent. Historically, Christians often built churches on the ruins of pagan shrines. One of my favorite sites in Rome, the Basilica of San Clemente, sits atop a Mithraic temple, the ruins of which are still visible. After the Reconquista, Rod Dreher writes, Christians converted the great mosque of Cordoba into a cathedral. The point of such conduct is obvious. The victor wishes literally to squash the altars of the vanquished, to humiliate and demoralize followers of the old way. Our god is greater than yours.

But this sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore in the civilized world. As Dreher writes, converting the Hagia Sophia into a mosque now, after it has been a museum for decades, would be “a stunning act of cultural aggression” against Christians in Turkey, particularly the handful of Greeks who somehow have managed to hang on there. It would put the lie to claims of pluralism. And it would underline, as few other acts could, what Samuel Huntington famously called “the clash of civilizations.”

Roudometof, “Globalization and Orthodox Christianity”

9780415843737This month, Routledge will publish Globalization and Orthodox Christianity: The Transformations of a Religious Tradition by Victor Roudometof (University of Cyrpus). The publisher’s description follows.

With approximately 200 to 300 million adherents worldwide, Orthodox Christianity is among the largest branches of Christianity, yet it remains relatively understudied. This book examines the rich and complex entanglements between Orthodox Christianity and globalization, offering a substantive contribution to the relationship between religion and globalization, as well as the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and the sociology of religion – and more broadly, the interdisciplinary field of Religious Studies.

While deeply engaged with history, this book does not simply narrate the history of Orthodox Christianity as a world religion, nor does it address theological issues or cover all the individual trajectories of each subgroup or subdivision of the faith. Orthodox Christianity is the object of the analysis, but author Victor Roudometof speaks to a broader audience interested in culture, religion, and globalization. Roudometof argues in favor of using globalization instead of modernization as the main theoretical vehicle for analyzing religion, displacing secularization in order to argue for multiple hybridizations of religion as a suitable strategy for analyzing religious phenomena. It offers Orthodox Christianity as a test case that illustrates the presence of historically specific but theoretically distinct glocalizations, applicable to all faiths.

Religion in Russia

My friend and St. John’s colleague, Peggy McGuinness, alerts me to a worthwhile review essay by the Berkley Center’s Irina Papkova, “Believing in Russia,” on a religion and media blog called The Revealer. Papkova reviews Geraldine Fagan’s Believing in Russia–Religious Policy After Communism (2013). Here’s an excerpt:

Without being iconoclastic, “Believing in Russia” is based on impeccable research, and brings a useful corrective to many widely held assumptions about religion in Russian society.  Journalists writing about Russian politics for major news outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post usually present a cozy relationship between the ROC and the Putin regime, suggesting that this relationship is detrimental to religious minorities and non-religious Russians. There is some truth to this view but, as Fagan’s work demonstrates, the marginalization of minority faiths has as much to do with bureaucratic incompetence and the weakness of the rule of law in Russia as with the ROC’s plan to obliterate competition from other religions. Fagan tells the story of how religious policy is created and applied across the Russian Federation.  In doing so, she brings to light the role of personalities and personal convictions of bureaucrats in creating guidelines for how the state should deal with religion, and the efficiency with which they are applied.

You can read the whole review here.

European Court Rules Clergy Cannot Unionize Over Church’s Objection

In a much-anticipated decision, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights ruled today, 11-6, that Romania did not violate the European Human Rights Convention when it refused to register a trade union that Romanian Orthodox priests had formed against the wishes of the Romanian Orthodox Church. The decision, with important implications for church autonomy, overrules a contrary judgment by a chamber of the court last year.

Article 11 of the European Convention grants citizens–including, the Grand Chamber ruled today, clergy–the right to form trade unions, subject to restrictions that are necessary to advance legitimate governmental interests, including the “protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” Here, the Grand Chamber reasoned, Romania had restricted the priests’ right to form a union in order to protect the autonomy of Romanian Orthodox Church. Among other things, the proposed union was meant to promote members’ ability to obtain representation in the Holy Synod, the Church’s highest authority, and to strike in order to advance members’ interests within the Church. By registering a union with goals like these, the Grand Chamber reasoned, the state would hamper the ability of the Church to organize and govern itself according to its own rules:

Respect for the autonomy of religious communities … implies, in particular, that the State should accept the right of such communities to react, in accordance with their own rules and interests, to any dissident movements emerging within them that might pose a threat to their cohesion, image or unity. It is … not the task of the national authorities to act as the arbiter between religious communities and the various dissident factions that exist or may emerge within them.

In other words, because the union posed a real risk to the organizational integrity of the Romanian Orthodox Church, Romania was justified in refusing to register the union–particularly given the wide “margin of appreciation” the Convention grants states with respect to church/state relations.

The Grand Chamber’s decision contains language suggesting a sweeping view of church autonomy, but one could also see it as somewhat narrow. The Grand Chamber noted that nothing would stop clergy from forming a union “that pursues aims compatible with the Church’s Statute and does not call into question the Church’s traditional hierarchical structure and decision-making procedures.” And it emphasized the the fact-specific nature of the inquiry, stating at one point that “national courts must … conduct[] an in-depth examination of the circumstances of [a] case and a thorough balancing exercise between the competing interests at stake.” The resistance to a categorical rule is reminiscent of the US Supreme Court’s analysis in Hosanna-Tabor, the “ministerial exception” case. A third-party submission by the Becket Fund and the International Center for Law and Religion Studies discussed Hosanna-Tabor, but the Grand Chamber did not expressly rely on the American decision in its own reasoning.

The case is Sindicatul Pastoral cel Bun v. Romania (July 9, 2013), available at the ECtHR’s website, here. The Becket Fund’s press release about the decision is here.