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Religion and Forced Displacement in the Eastern Orthodox World: Executive Summary

Article by Lucian N. Leustean

July 23, 2020

Religion and Forced Displacement in the Eastern Orthodox World: Executive Summary

This Policy Report examines the relationship between religion-state relations, forced displacement, religious diplomacy and human security in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, with a focus on eight countries in the region, Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine. It engages with four areas: 1) the circulation of ideas on human security between religious and secular courts, monastic settlements, pilgrimage sites and educational establishments; 2) religious strategies in relation to violence, tolerance, transitory environments and resettlement; 3) religious support, protection and mechanisms towards displaced populations, and 4) channels of religious diplomacy advancing human security.


The Policy Report summarises the findings of two British Academy projects running at Aston University that have collected a dataset on ‘Eastern Orthodoxy and Human Security’ composed of 70 interviews with officials in Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia and Ukraine belonging to three main categories, namely: 1) religious practitioners (lay people, lower and higher clergy) in charge of humanitarian programmes; 2) governmental and civil society organisations; and 3) academics working in national universities and academies of sciences.[1] Findings from the interviews have been included in this collection.


This publication seeks to answer a number of important questions:


  1. What happens when states fail to support migrants and forcibly displaced populations? How do religious actors (national churches, religious institutions, national and internationally affiliated organisations) and state bodies engage with human security in Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Moldova, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine?
  2. What are the mechanisms of Orthodox support towards forcibly displaced communities in these countries? How does displacement impact upon religious practices, values and political structures?
  3. How does Orthodox diplomacy impact upon state relations in Eastern Europe and Eurasia and, most importantly, between Eastern and Western Europe?


The publication finds that:


  1. First, European Union (EU) migration policies and forced migration are highly contentious and have been politicised in predominantly Orthodox countries, entailing a long-term impact on East-West relations. At times, the EU’s approach to migration has been presented as a sign of an ideological clash between East and West.


  1. Second, when states fail to offer support for populations affected by violence, religious communities have been one of the first actors to take over state functions and act as providers of human security. In the first months of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Christian and Muslim communities crossed the faith divide mobilised themselves nationally in support of internally displaced people before the Ukrainian government issued a national strategy. In Serbia, faith-based organisations supported Syrian refugees following the Balkan route by working with local authorities and the government before an organised policy response had been implemented. In many cases, authorities turned to religious communities to provide support for migrants as the state did not have the necessary mechanisms to address humanitarian emergencies.


  1. Third, in the Donbass region, the ‘buffer zone’ is not just one between military forces but a spiritual and geographical space between religions not only generating violence but also supporting tolerance and reconciliation. In Ukraine, competing Orthodox churches have their own humanitarian networks supporting local populations and displaced population. One of them, the local Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), regards the Russia-Ukraine conflict as a civil war and has been involved in the release of prisoners of war.


  1. Fourth, the competition between Orthodox churches continues to reverberate, having an impact not only on relations between religious communities but also directly affecting state support and engagement with human security. The rivalry between the national Orthodox churches in Ukraine, the support of the Ukrainian government for religious independence outside Moscow, and the increasing anti-Westernism of Orthodox clergy faced by a dramatic number of Syrian migrants and migrant camps along the Balkan route, are directly linked to the ways in which state structures address and manage violence, security and social cohesion.[2]


  1. The topic of forced displacement is highly contentious not only in countries directly affected by the refugee crisis but also in others in the region. The refugee crisis has led to an internationally-linked Orthodox conservatism characterised by five components: defending a mythical past; fostering close relations with state authorities; anti-Westernism; building conservative networks at local, national and geopolitical levels; and, presenting Orthodox churches as alternative governance structures. For example, in Bulgaria, the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church, the highest religious authority in the country, stood out as the first religious body in the region to publicly challenge the government’s policy towards refugees. In Moldova, during debates in the run up to the presidential elections, the Orthodox Church endorsed the fake news that 30,000 Syrians were about to arrive in the country affecting the balance between the pro-Russian and pro-EU candidates.


  1. The exact figures of forcibly displaced populations remain unclear. In many cases, people in need refuse to register with state bodies due to fears of violence and deportation, and they find the means of support from other civil society sources. Contradictory figures are provided by a wide range of national and international organisations, for example, in Greece, Bulgaria, Russia and Ukraine.


  1. Religious diversity remains one of the most challenging issues in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet states. It is without doubt that many religious communities have provided support to populations in need, particularly at local level. However, fear of the ‘other’ and proselytism remain dominant and characterise the ways in which religious communities have responded to humanitarian crises. Religion-state relations are different for each country in the region going back to the role of religious communities in the establishment of modern nation states. Understanding the intricacies of religion-state relations is fundamental to the ways in which religious communities and state authorities support each other in times of both ‘peace’ and ‘crisis’.


  1. As a general rule, Eastern Christian churches do not publicise their social activities, putting forward theological arguments that humanitarian activities should not be made public. The transparency of funds used in social programmes has been linked to the social and political legitimacy of each religious confession. This has been particularly poignant in Armenia, Georgia and Moldova, with the lack of large-scale humanitarian programmes linked to the ways in which religion-state relations have evolved after the fall of communism.[3]


Based on these findings the publication makes a number of policy recommendations:


  1. Religious literacy among political elites in Europe would help counter the politicisation of religion. There should be wider public and policy awareness of the ways in which political messages are delivered by religious channels of communication. The politicisation of religion in the Eastern Orthodox world will continue to shape relations between Russia and the EU. The ongoing conflict in Donbass and increasing regional instability will lead to further employment of religious symbols.


  1. There is no (or in a number of cases, very limited) dialogue between Orthodox churches and their social departments working on humanitarian issues. A refugee entering a country on the Balkan route or one of the former Soviet states experiences varied levels of religious and state solidarity and humanitarian support. Cooperation between religious communities (as for example, the support of people in need by religious practitioners from the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church) has produced a tangible result for the migrants in state-run camps. Inter-religious cooperation on humanitarian issues should be encouraged and followed up not only internationally, but also at the national level. External funding to humanitarian programmes should include a wide range of religious actors, not only favouring the predominant religious confession in the country.


  1. Religious education in this region should include more references to and examples of both violence and reconciliation. Many clergy depict the EU as an ideological bloc opposing Orthodox values. Opportunities should be funded encouraging religious practitioners and students of theology/religion to travel and study in the EU, which would lead to greater openness and understanding among not only religious leaders but also, and more importantly, within local communities affected by conflict.


  1. Religious communities remain key to both violence and reconciliation. Policy makers should be aware of the potential of religious communities to aggravate violence. They should work with both local and top-level religious leaders to generate greater cooperation between state and religious structures benefiting populations in need. For example, the high degree of support since 2014 among the Ukrainian population for the former Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate, now mostly incorporated into the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, was not only due to the church leadership’s welcoming of European values but also due to its support for Ukraine’s military forces in Donbass.[4] The numbers of military chaplains accompanying the troops has been reflected by the population’s trust in the Kyiv Patriarchate at the expense of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).


Lucian N. Leustean is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Aston University where he has been teaching since 2007. He studied international relations, law and theology in Bucharest, Romania, and completed his PhD in Political Science at LSE. His research has been supported by fellowships from the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences, Amsterdam (Fellow in residence, 2018-19), the Westminster Abbey Institute (Fellow, 2015-16), and the Transatlantic Academy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (Senior Fellow, 2014-15), and grants from the British Academy, the European Commission and the Economic and Social Research Council. In 2018-21, he is Principal Investigator of a British Academy grant on ‘When States Fail. Forced Displacement, Religious Diplomacy and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World’. The project draws on the findings of the 2018 British Academy Grant on ‘Forced Migration‘.


Cover photo: ‘Cathedral of Talin, Armenia, May 2019’. Copyright: Lucian N. Leustean


[1]The two projects are 2018-2020: ‘Forced Migration, Religious Diplomacy and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World’ (IC2\100047), awarded under the Tackling the UK’s International Challenges 2017 Programme; and ‘When States Fail: Forced Displacement, Religious Diplomacy and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World’ (SDP2\100014), the Sustainable Development Programme, as part of the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund. The projects have organised workshops which brought together academics and policy practitioners in Belgrade, Serbia (June 2018), Kyiv, Ukraine (September 2018) and Yerevan, Armenia (November 2019).

[2] Findings 1-4 stem from the first British Academy project (2018) which focused on Serbia and Ukraine.

[3] Findings 5-8 are based the second British Academy project (2018-2020) which focused on Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia and Moldova.

[4] Most of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate has merged with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, to create the Orthodox Church of Ukraine following the Tomos (decree) of autocephaly (decree of ecclesial independence) by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul on January 5th 2019. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate was subsequently revived in 2019 by former UOC (KP) Patriarch Filaret (following the election of Epiphanius I as Metropolitan of the new church).

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