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Eastern Europe: Orthodox Church Still Wields Political Clout

The Romanian Orthodox Church has ruled that its priests cannot belong to political parties or hold public office. Romania will hold general elections later this year, and the governing Social Democrats are keen to attract support from the church. Relations between the Orthodox Church and the government have reportedly remained strong in the Balkans and Russia after the fall of communism. Too strong, some analysts argue.

Prague, 19 February 2004 (NCA/Eugen Tomiuc) -- Romania's Orthodox Church on 12 February gave a 10-day ultimatum to its clergy to choose between the priesthood or politics.

The decision bans priests from belonging to political parties, from taking part in election campaigns, from running for parliament or other public office, or from holding positions in public administration. Archbishop Bartolomeu Anania says the Holy Synod -- the church's highest authority -- made the decision based on the universal precepts of the Christian church.

Until now, priests were allowed to take leaves of absence of up to four years to pursue political office. Under the new regulations, they must leave the priesthood for good once they choose to enter politics. Out of Romania's estimated 15,000 Orthodox priests, less than 100 hold public office, and only several have actually entered politics.

The church wields enormous influence in Romania, where an estimated 87 percent of the country's 22 million people are Orthodox. Romania is due to hold general elections later this year, and the governing Social Democrats are keen to attract more support from the church, which ranks as the country's most trusted institution.

Romanian historian and political analyst Zoe Petre told RFE/RL that she believes priests should refrain from giving any kind of moral support to political parties or to the government. "If a priest -- whether an Orthodox, Catholic, or Reformed -- does not officially join a political party, but lends his moral authority and his influence to a party, that is almost worse," she said.

In Romania -- as in Russia -- the Orthodox Church was accused of close collaboration with the communist regime, and of doing nothing to stop the demolition of churches under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. In the former Yugoslavia, Orthodox and Catholic confessions, despite not being so close to the state, were more divided along national lines.

Marko Orsolic, director of the International Multicultural and Inter-Confessional Center in Sarajevo, told RFE/RL that identifying religion with nationality was instrumental in the conflicts of the 1990s. "Religions in former Yugoslavia -- Catholic and Orthodox -- were misused, because religions are corresponding to nationalities. It means Catholics are mostly Croats, and all Serbs belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church," he said. "All this correspondence [of religions to nationalities] was very dangerous during the war. The religion was very often misused. Therefore, the people were not enough informed. They were not coming out strong enough against destruction, against the hatred, against the war."

Orsolic says that, even though all churches were formally against war, they did too little to prevent or to stop atrocities.

However, historian Zoe Petre says that, despite the centuries-long juxtaposition between nation and Orthodoxy in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, it was nationalist communism that triggered the bloodshed in former Yugoslavia. "There is an [Orthodox] Byzantine tradition which includes the historic regions of Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, and even Russia. On the other hand, I am personally convinced that the bloody Balkan conflicts [of the 1990s] are ultimately the effect of national communism, not of confessional or religious differences," she said. "In Romania, too, there are national extremist parties who are trying to reclaim the Orthodoxy."

Orsolic says the church tried to distance itself from Slobodan Milosevic, but it was not easy because of the repressive character of his regime, and its financial dependence on the state.

He says that, currently, the situation is improving. "After the war, the church acquired a better image, I think, because it is [seen as] different from the regimes -- [either the] Tudjman [regime in Croatia] itself or the Milosevic [regime in Yugoslavia], and the church is the better part of the situation. I can say so, and I think it is mostly the opinion of the believers and of other people who do not belong to the church," Orsolic said.

In Russia, which is by far the largest Orthodox country in the world, the constitution does not ban priests from politics. But the Russian Orthodox Church itself recommends its members stay away from politics, under threat of excommunication.

But Russian analyst Andrei Piontkovskii says the Russian church by tradition is servile toward authority. Currently, Piontkovskii says, even though priests are not officially involved in politics, they strongly support the administration of President Vladimir Putin. "They are very visible in Kremlin meetings, in some meetings of the pro-Putin party," he said. "They support the president. They support authority. They support power, and they are getting very serious financial preferences for the kind of support they provide."

Piontkovskii says there are little chance of change within the conservative Russian Orthodox Church.

Historian Zoe Petre, meanwhile, says that, in a modern society, the church must retain its function as a fundamental institution of the civil society in its relations with the political power. "The state must be the expression of plurality, while the church is a very important institution of civil society," she said. "That's why I believe that a more precise delimitation between the power and the structures belonging to the civil society in general is much more favorable to good understanding. Think about it. We say 'the church,' but which one of them? In Romania [and other countries], there are many religious confessions. Are we referring to all of them? Some of them yes and others not? Like in politics or in any other field, a majority does not mean totality."

True to form, many Romanian Orthodox priests have announced they intend to give up politics and public office. It remains to be seen how many will live up to their word when the 22 February deadline expires.