The Myth of an Orthodox Block

By Kotzias, Konstantinos | Contemporary Review, June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Myth of an Orthodox Block


Kotzias, Konstantinos, Contemporary Review


Editor's Note: This article was completed before the recent visit by the Pope to Greece. The Pope's apology for the actions of Western Christians is part of his attempt to reconcile Western and Eastern Christianity.

THE apocalyptic events of the 1990s and the disappearance of the East-West rivalry has re-shaped the landscape of Europe and the world. The violent conflicts in the Balkans and elsewhere, the nature of the changes and the characteristics of these conflicts, prompt many to characterise them as religious. For the first time 'Orthodoxy' (from Greek, 'right-believing', implying doctrinal consistency with apostolic truth) appeared in the Western media and academia as Orthodox Serbs, Muslims and Catholic Croats were fighting each other. The conflict in Chechnya between Muslim guerrillas and the Russian and Orthodox federation, and the conflict in Kosovo revived further these arguments concerning the role of religion in the post-Cold War system. The revival of Orthodox Christianity indicated the emergence of a new pattern and a uniform bloc from the Mediterranean to the Pacific Ocean.

This was observed and presented extensively by S. Huntington in The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order. He described a world order based on civilisation and eventually religion. In particular he explains the Balkan conflicts with the 'fault lines of civilisations' and the collisions between civilisations such as the Western, the Orthodox and the Islamic. He also identified six other civilisations and introduced, with persuasion, the importance of culture in internal affairs. These observations and the beliefs of some insiders of the region, also half-convinced Victoria Clark as she confessed in Why Angels Fall and her journey through Orthodox Europe. The idea, however, of the existence of an Orthodox bloc squeezed between the West and the Islam, implies some simplification of historical facts. In order to determine if such an orthodox bloc even exists, it seems necessary to trace its historical origin and evolution through the centuries.

Christianity initially suffered under Roman oppression but gradually gained toleration and eventually prevailed when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, himself miraculously converted to the new religion. In AD 312, on the eve of a battle against Maxentius, his rival in Italy, Constantine dreamt that Christ appeared to him and told him to inscribe the first two letters of his name ('XP' in Greek) on the shields of his troops. The next day, the Emperor is said to have seen a cross superimposed on the Sun and the words 'in this sign you will be the victor'. Constantine's favoured religion and the Church were given legal rights and large financial donations. In the next few centuries everything that was considered pagan was destroyed and by AD 527, Emperor Justinian closed the school of Athens, which was the centre of neo-platonic philosophy.

The empire needed a second administrative centre to the east and the site of the ancient city of Byzantium at the mouth of Bosphorus on the Black Sea offered the perfect location for the new city. The new Rome or Constantinople with its unique geographical position was ready by AD 330 and gradually developed into the true capital of the eastern Roman provinces, from south-eastern Europe to North Africa. While the western Roman Empire and Christendom were going through the chaotic fifth to ninth centuries, in the east, Christendom was growing, helped by the general prosperity of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). 'Byzantine' of course is an invention of eighteenth-century historians and scholars: the eastern Roman Empire was actually known as Romania. The lingua franca of the empire was Greek although some of the empire's inhabitants spoke Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and other local languages, but did not have national consciousness with its contemporary meaning. The early Byzantines were Romaioi, Christian Roman citizens who spoke Greek and lived in the eastern rather than the western Roman Empire. …

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