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Orthodoxy and nationalism

by Stephen Methodius Hayes

In the minds of many people, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Orthodox Christianity is linked with nationalism. Sometimes people have asked me what religion I am, and when I say that I am an Orthodox Christian, they look blank and then ask, "Do you mean Greek Orthodox?" or "Do you mean Russian Orthodox?" and it is often very difficult to explain without giving a two-hour lecture on church history.

It is also something of a contentious subject among Orthodox Christians themselves and there have been many disagreements about it. It is therefore quite possible that some people who read this article may not agree with everything in it. That's what the discussions are for - to put forward a different point of view, or to point out where you think the article is wrong.

Historical Background

The Orthodox Church traces its beginning to the day of Pentecost AD 33, and the events recounted in the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 1 & 2. The Church began with people speaking a multiplicity of languages being baptised. As the Church grew and spread, more people from different cultural backgrounds joined, though mostly, to begin with, within the Roman empire.

In the fourth century several of the emperors themselves were Christians, and one of them, Theodosius, made Christianity the only official religion of the empire. From then until the end of the empire in 1453 all the emperors were nominally Christian, though not all of them were Orthodox - some, for example, promoted the iconoclast heresy. After the 5th century the Roman empire shrunk, so that many lived beyond its boundaries, in territories like Egypt and Syria, which had been conquered by the Arabs, or in Britain, from which Roman troops had been withdrawn.

In the 9th century there was a mission to the Slavs, many of whom lived outside the empire, which eventually led to the formation of the Slavic Orthodox Churches - Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian. Each of these eventually developed its own autocephalous Orthodox Church (autocephalous means that it chooses its own head, or chief bishop, who is sometimes, but not always, given the title of "Patriarch"). These autocephalous churches took on a national character, and when most of the people were Christians, the membership of both Church and nation overlapped to a large degree. This link between Church and nation is, however, not the same as nationalISM, as I hope to show.

When most of Russia was conquered and ruled by the Tatars in the 13th century, the Church prayed for the new rulers. But church leaders like St Sergius of Radonezh also supported the movement for independence from Tatar rule, which was won a couple of centuries later, and led to the rise of Moscow as a power.

The Roman empire finally came to an end when Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, and the Christians of the Patriarchate of Constantinople joined their fellows of the Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem as a minority under Muslim rule. The Patriarch of Constantinople was then made the ethnarch (national ruler) of the Rum Millet - the Roman nation - which the Turks regarded as comprising all the Christians in the empire. For the first time in the history of Eastern Christianity the clergy were given the responsibility of secular rule (in the West, the Pope of Rome and some other bishops had been secular rulers several centuries earlier).

This forcing the clergy to take responsibility as secular rulers was one of the significant historical events that was later to lead to links between Orthodox Christianity and nationalism.

In the meantime, Moscow was expanding its power, and its rulers took the title of Tsar (in 1547), while its bishop took the title of Patriarch, and became the leader of the autocephalous Russian Orthodox Church. Many in Russia saw Moscow as the Third Rome, after the fall of Constantinople. For several centuries Russia was the only country where Orthodox Christians were not a minority, regarded as second-class citizens under the dhimmi rule of Islam.

Three events or movements then arose in western Europe, which were to have significant effects on the countries where Orthodox Christians lived.

  1. The Peace of Westphalia and the national state system
  2. The Enlightenment
  3. German Romantic Nationalism

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the modern state system, and the understanding of national sovereignty.

The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement conventionally dated from 1690-1781, though its influence on European thought lasted much longer. This influenced Tsar Peter the Great of Russia, who learnt of it mainly from Germany, and also imposed the German view of Church-State relations. Instead of the "symphony" of Church and State which, at least in theory, had prevailed through the millennium of the Christian Roman Empire, and (again, in theory) in Russia up till then. Peter the Great sought to make the Church subservient to the state, and turn it into an instrument of state policy. He abolished the Patriarchate and established a Holy Synod that was in effect run by a state official, the Procurator. The position of the Church in Russia then did not differ much from that of the Church in the Ottoman Empire.

The third movement from western Europe was Romantic Nationalism, in part it was a reaction against the Enlightenment, and was led by German philosophers like Herder and Fichte. It might be more accurate to say that this movement arose in central Europe rather than western Europe. In western Europe a "nation" was seen as the people living in a territory under the same government and laws, that shared a common history. Herder promoted the idea of language and culture as the defining marks of a nation. This led to the rise of nationalism in Eastern Europe, where people living in multinational empires, like the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, sought to regain national independence.

In the early 19th century there was a growing movement for Greek independence, inspired partly by the Church, with the desire to have Christians free of Ottoman rule, and partly by people who were influenced by the more secular nationalism of Germany. At the centre of the Church's vision was the Christian Roman empire (called "Byzantine" by western historians). But the essence of it was a Roman revolt against Turkish rule. The secular nationalists, however, inspired by the ideas of Herder and Fichte, promoted the idea of "Hellenism" - something that had not been heard in the Christian world since the 4th century, when it had been rejected by the Church Fathers as something essentially pagan and not Christian.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople opposed this neo-Hellenism, and not merely for political reasons. In spite of this, one Patriarch was hanged by the Turks for failing to control the rebels among the "Roman nation", which they regarded as his political responsibility.

The movement for Greek independence appealed to romantics and nationalists in the West. Upper-class Englishmen, who had been educated in the Greek classics and the glories of ancient Greece, supported the cause with their rhetoric, their money, and sometimes (as in the case of Lord Byron) their lives. Their interest in and response to the idea of classical antiquity boosted the idea of Hellenism at the expense of Romanity.

When Greece became independent, it had a German monarch, and German architecture, and the German idea of Church-State relations. The Orthodox Church of Greece was established as autocephalous, without reference to Constantinople, where the Patriarchs had opposed it.

Other Balkan countries embarked on independence struggles too, and as they threw off Turkish rule, their autocephalous churches were reestablished, but most often along German lines, with the church subservient to the state, and seen as an instrument of state policy. Many of these countries came under Communist rule after the Second World War, and for more than 40 years were persecuted and suppressed.

In the 1950s Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus led the movement for the independence of Cyprus from British rule. It was a time of decolonisation, when many countries were becoming independent of various colonial powers. Archbishop Makarios became the first President of independent Cyprus. For British people, the behaviour of Archbishop Makarios was reprehensible, because the British thought that "religion and politics don't mix" and a church leader's involvement in a nationalist struggle seemed to be in bad taste. Archbishop Makarios was friendly with Jomo Kenyatta, the leader of the Kenyan independence struggle, and after independence they established friendly relations between Cyprus and Kenya.

What many of the British did not understand, however, was that Archbishop Makarios was following in the tradition of the "ethnarch" that had been developed under Turkish rule. The clergy had to be the voice for the political aspirations of the people.

Nation, Church and Nationalism

There are thus several elements in the links, such as they are, between Orthodoxy and nationalism.

One is the link that developed between church and nation, when most of the people in the nation were Orthodox Christians, and where an autocephalous church was established whose jurisdiction was more or less coterminous with the boundaries of the national territory.

A second is the position of the church in countries that were subject to Ottoman rule, where the church was regarded as an instrument of the government.

A third is the German notion, applied by Peter the Great in Russia in the late 17th century, and later by secular nationalism in the Balkans, where the church is seen as subservient to the state.

A fourth is the rise of secular nationalism, based on philosophical ideas that also originated in Germany from the thought of Herder and Fichte.

It has often been difficult for Orthodox Christians in the Balkans to distinguish between the organic link between church and nation, and the secular nationalist ideas, so much so that people have sometimes been led to say things like "Orthodoxy is Hellenism and Hellenism is Orthodoxy", which, apart from being untrue, is probably heretical.

Someone once said, "The Orthodox Church is not missionary, because the purpose of the Church is to preserve Greek culture."

But I believe that she had got it exactly the wrong way round.

It is not the purpose of the Church to preserve Greek culture; it is rather the purpose of Greek culture to preserve the Orthodox faith.

From the 4th century onwards a Christian Greek (ie Roman) culture developed, and it was so bound up with the Christian faith that 400 years of Turkish rule was not able to destroy it.

In Russia, Russian culture was gradually Christianised over the centuries. For 70 years the Bolsheviks tried to destroy the Christian faith in Russia, but they could not do it, because to do so they would have had to destroy Russian culture. The revival of the Church towards the end of the Bolshevik period was in no small measure due to people dissatisfied with Bolshevism trying to explore Russian culture, and then finding that Russian culture was rooted in, and permeated with Orthodoxy.

Western Christians, and Western converts to Orthodoxy, sometimes speak slightingly of the link between Orthodoxy and various national cultures. They should not. It was precisely those links that preserved the Orthodox faith through persecution and oppression.

At the same time, it is important to recognise the distinction between national cultures and nationalism, and to recognise that much in nationalism has little or nothing to do with Orthodoxy, but is linked to secular and secularist philosophies that developed mainly in central Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Words and links


"Greek" is derived from the Latin term, Graecus, which referred to the people of Greece, or those who spoke Greek. It was also used of the linguistic and cultural division of the later Roman empire into the "Latin West" and the "Greek East".

It is also therefore used in the sense of the "Greek Orthodox Church", which is not the same as the "Orthodox Church of Greece", but refers rather to the much wider entity that derived from the "Greek East". In this sense the Church of Russia, the Church of Romania and the Church of Bulgaria are also part of the "Greek Orthodox Church".

The Greek language has a special place in the Orthodox Church, because the Bible was written in Greek (the "authorised version" of the Old Testament in the Orthodox Church is the Septuagint), and the Greek version remains the standard.


In talking about "Greek" I did not contrast the "Greek East" with the "Roman" West, because though the city of Rome is in the "west", the Greek East remained "Roman", though it was never Latin. Until the rise of neo-Hellenism in the 19th century, Christian Greeks did not normally think of themselves as "Hellenes" but rather as Romans. The "Byzantine" empire is a fiction concocted by Western historians -- its citizens only ever regarded themselves as Romans. In the Near and Middle East, the Greek Orthodox Church is usually called "the Roman Church" (for example in Syria).


For most of the history of the Christian Roman Empire, from the 4th century to the 14th century, the term "Hellenic" usually referred to pagan Greek philosophy and culture, and was regarded as something undesirable for Christians.

In modern Greek language and thought it has tended to become a substitute for "Roman", or to combine the meanings. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that St Cosmas the Aetolian, who promoted the use of the Greek language in teaching in the Balkans in the 18th century, and prophesied Greek freedom, may not have been too happy with what subsequently happened. He did not prophecy about Hellenic, but rather about Roman freedom. He advocated the use of the Greek language, but not from nationalistic motives. He did so because Greek, rather than Turkish, was the language of the Christian faith. The Turkish language, as taught in Balkan schools, was permeated with Islam.

For more discussion of these words, see

For more on links between nationalism and Orthodoxy, see:
Nationalism, violence and reconciliation

Comments and questions

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Created: 27 September 2001
Updated: 2 August 2014