Central Europe Review The International OSI Policy Fellowships (IPF) program
Vol 2, No 27
10 July 2000
front page 
sponsor us 
jobs at CER 
CER Direct 
e-mail us 
year 2000 
year 1999 
by subject 
by author 
music shop 
video store 


Sam Vaknin The Crescent
and the Cross:
The communities of God

Part III of an examination of the principal axes of friction in the Balkans
Sam Vaknin

Read Part I and Part II of Sam Vaknin's The Crescent and the Cross series of articles first

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, and sanctity...
- Quoted from Eve Levin, "Christianity and Islam in Southeastern Europe - Slavic Orthodox Attitudes Toward Other Religions," East European Studies Occasional Paper Number 47, 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 Mateji and Dragan Milivojević, An Anthology of Medieval Serbian Literature in English, (Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1978)

Any effort to understand the modern quagmire that is the Balkans must address religion as well as 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. Historically, the region has been characterized more by religious tolerance than by religious persecution and was a model of the successful co-habitation and co-existence of even the most bitter enemies from the most disparate backgrounds.

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.

Hardly monolithic

Religions in the Balkans 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 all religions, berated other confessions and denominations. But Orthodoxy was always benign - there were no jihads, no bloodshed, no forced conversions and no mass expulsions - with the possible exception of the treatment of the Bogomils.

Power and money

It was all about power and money, of course. Bishops and archbishops did not hesitate to co-opt the Ottoman administration against their adversaries and had their rivals arrested by the Turks or ex-communicated them. Such squabbles were common, but they never amounted to more than a Balkan commedia dell'arte.

Even the Jews - persecuted all over Western Europe - were tolerated and attained prominence and influence in the Balkans. One Bulgarian Tsar even divorced his wife to marry a Jewess. Southern Orthodox Christianity (as opposed to the virulent and vituperative Byzantine species) has always been pragmatic. Jewish, Armenian and Vlach minorities were the economic and financial backbones of their societies, and the Balkans 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, the Catholics and the 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? What type of bread was to 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 southern Orthodox pilloried the Catholic stance as an heresy of Armenian, 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 Balkans.

Becoming malevolent heretics

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 Latins 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, and both 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 Catholic sins unforgivable and Catholic behaviour inexcusable - in effect, sealing their fate.

In 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. After all, they used the same calendar as the Orthodox (except for Lent) and similarly prayed in Church Slavonic. The only visible difference was the Catholic recognition of Papal authority.

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.

Islam - the second great threat

Although a latecomer, the second great threat was Islam. Catholicism and Orthodoxy had been foes since the ninth century and, four hundreds years later, Byzantine wars against the Muslims were a distant thunder and raised little curiosity or interest in the Balkans. The Orthodox Church was acquainted with the tenets of Islamic faith, but did not bother to codify its knowledge or record it. Islam was, despite its impeccable monotheistic credentials, an exotic Oriental off-shoot of tribal paganism in the Orthodox worldview.

The Turkish invasion and the hardships of daily life under Ottoman rule thus found Orthodoxy unprepared. It reacted the way we all react to fear of the unknown: with superstitions, curses and name-calling. On the one hand, the Turkish enemy was dehumanized and bedevilled, perceived to be God's punishment on the unfaithful and the sinful. On the other hand, in a curious transformation or through cognitive dissonance, the Turks became a divine instrument, the wrathful messengers of God.

The Christians of the Balkans suffered from a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome. They went through the classical phases of grief, beginning with denial of defeat (at Kosovo Polje, for instance) and proceeding through rage, sadness and acceptance.

Denial, rage, sadness and acceptance

All four phases co-existed in Balkan history. Denial manifested itself in the many who resorted to mysticism and delusional political thought. That the Turks failed for centuries to subdue pockets of resistance (in Montenegro, for instance) served to periodically rekindle these hopes and delusions. The Turks and, by extension, Islam, thus served as a politically cohering factor and provided a cause around which to rally.

Send this article to a friend
Rage manifested through acts of individual and group rebellion against the occupying Ottomans, while sadness was expressed in liturgy, art, literature, music and dance. Locals reached 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 for outsiders and foreigners, the off-spring of Ishmael and of Hagar, the Latins and the Turks. Muslim or Catholic neighbours were rarely, if ever, the target of such vitriolic diatribes. External enemies - be they Christian or Muslim- were always to be cursed and resisted. Neighbours of the same ethnicity were never to be punished or discriminated against on account of their religion or convictions, though half-hearted condemnations did occur.

Community ties

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 did not detract at all from the fact that their allegiances and places in society emanated from birth and long term residence.

This tolerance and acceptance prevailed even in the face of the Ottoman segregation of religious communities in ethnically-mixed millets. This principle was finally shattered by the advent of the modern nation-state and its defining parameters (history and language), real or, more often, invented. Prior to that, one could sometimes find individuals in the same nuclear family practicing different religions.

Secular rulers and artisans in guilds collaborated unhesitatingly with Jews, Turks and Catholics. Conversions to and fro were common practice as means to secure economic benefits, and these phenomena were especially prevalent in the border areas of Croatia and Bosnia. But everyone, throughout the Balkans, 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 Janissary Corps) 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 Muslims. Everybody shared miraculous sites, icons and even prayers.

Orthodox Slavs pilgrims to the holy places in Palestine were called Hadzi, and Muslims 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 common. They also married and divorced Catholic couples, in contravention of the Catholic faith, while Orthodox and Catholics habitually intermarried and interbred.

That this background yielded Srebrenica and Sarajevo, Kosovo and Krajina is astounding. This, the malignant growth of this century, is the subject of our next instalment.

Sam Vaknin, 10 July 2000

The author:

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Moving on:



Baltic Focus:
Mel Huang

Prekevičius & Clark
Lithuania's Looming Elections

Aet Annist
Estonia: Progress without Protest

Mel Huang
Military Brass Shuffling in Estonia

Artūras Račas
Calvin Klein and Communism

Mel Huang
Lithuania: A bananos respublika?

Teri Schultz
Reflections on a Revolution

Meelis Kitsing
Online in E-stonia

Arnis Gross
Latvia Logs On

Razeen Sally
Estonia and the EU

Hubert Jakobs
Livonian folk band Tulli Lum

Mel Huang
Baltic BeBop

Bernd Jahnke
Lithuanian Jazz

Artis Pabriks
Rīga's Revenge

Kurt Mortensen
Estonia's Art Music Scene

Mel Huang
Schizoid Lamb

Howard Jarvis
The Writings of Jurga Ivanauskaitė

President Vaira

Prime Minister
Mart Laar

Lithuanian Military Commander Jonas Kronkaitis

Oliver Craske
Lords Return Roma to Skinheads

Andrew Cave
Poland's Collapsing Right

Catherine Lovatt
Next Target: Montenegro

Sam Vaknin
Balkan Faith

Wolfgang Deckers
Germany in the Balkans

Culture Calendar: