The Orthodox Church is a complex geopolitical reality, and does not constitute a homogenous block. On the contrary, the rise of irredentism during the 19th century has created the basis for constant fragmentation throughout the 20th century. A series of historical events have reduced the territory of Orthodox communities, leading local populations to leave for the West, redefining the map of Orthodoxy. The events in question include the Russian Revolution (1917), the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey (1923), the Ustashe massacres (1942-1944), the rise of Communism in the Balkans (1945), the beginning of the modern conflicts in the Middle East (1948), the invasion and division of Cyprus (1974), the Lebanese Civil War (1975), the Balkan conflicts (1991-2000), the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), the invasion of Iraq (2003), the independence of Kosovo (2008), the Russo-Georgian War (2008), the Arab Spring (2010) as well as the Syrian crisis (2011), and more recently the conflict in Ukraine (2013).
Surprisingly, the worldwide Orthodox population continues to increase. According to Antoine Arjakovsky, research director at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris, the number of Orthodox adherents has doubled in the last century from 124,923,000 to 274,447,000 in 2010. The convergence of these two phenomena – territorial fragmentation and population growth – is a starting point for a reinvestigation of Orthodox power in International Affairs, as well as a profound strategic change affecting the communion (federation) of the fourteen local Orthodox Churches.
21st century Orthodoxy has become an effective player in international relations and a true geopolitical force. In a post-Cold War world and a post-9/11 context, the Orthodox Churches have been able to respond to the new global and geopolitical landscape by implementing strategies which are unique to each autocephalous (independent) Church. The specificities of the various contexts depend on the temporal, historical, migration, cultural and ethnic backgrounds of each of these communities. The Orthodox Churches deal with their own geopolitical agenda, in addition to being encompassed by state diplomacies. But the center of gravity of Orthodoxy is currently moving outside of its traditional borders, creating new geopolitical conditions and new tensions between the Churches.
Thus, the manifestation of Orthodox unity may be jeopardized by the contemporary geopolitical equation, which affects interchurch alliances and challenges the relationship between faith and politics. Orthodoxy has responded to geopolitics by developing new approaches, focusing on the dialogue between Orthodoxy and Identity, the effects of territorial changes in their strategies for maintaining authority over communities in the Diaspora, and their role in the context of conflicts. In other words, at a time of multi-polarity, or “nonpolarity”, in International Relations, following the end of the Cold War, is a new map of Orthodox geopolitics emerging?
The Orthodox Church is a geopolitical reality in itself. This fact influences the preparation of the Holy and Great Council, which is supposedly going to be held in June 2016. Will it be the last chance for the fourteen Orthodox Churches to guarantee their unity? The various political agendas, as well as the rise of Orthodox communities in the Diaspora act as a phenomenon regulating inter-Orthodox relationships. This phenomenon does not seem to be enough to slow down the centrifugal forces affecting them. The Ukrainian conflict and the crisis in Syria, for instance, are only two of the many challenges that the Orthodox Church has to face in the first decades of this 3rd millennium. Other key geopolitical issues include:
- The official recognition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the Turkish administration and the reopening of the Orthodox Theological Seminary of Halki;
- The issue of the Christians in the Middle East;
- The compatibility of the West and the Russian Orthodox Church;
- The transition period between Communism and European Union membership in Romania and Bulgaria;
- The European process of Serbia and the treatment of Orthodoxy in Kosovo;
- The place of the Orthodox Church in Greece at a time of economical and political crisis;
- The recognition of the new Primate of the Orthodox Church in the Czech land and Slovakia;
- The persistent division of Cyprus;
- The Rupture of communion between the Patriarchates of Antioch and Jerusalem regarding the canonical jurisdiction over Qatar.
Obviously, this list is not exhaustive, but it highlights the fragility of the Orthodox Church looking for its being as communion. These very specific geopolitical aspects and their changes of strategic nature create the conditions for ongoing bipolar tension close to what we encountered during the Cold War period. Through the 20th century, the Orthodox Church has demonstrated a real plasticity toward political contexts ranging from State religion to oppression under official atheism. The change of geopolitical paradigms is a long and complex process, which continues to weigh on the mosaic of Orthodox spirituality catalyzing faith, identity, territory and politics.
Rev. Dr. Nicolas Kazarian is a French research associate at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (Paris, France), where he heads up the Observatory on Geopolitics and Religions. He holds a PhD in Political Geography, from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. He is a lecturer at the Saint-Serge Institute (Paris) and also teaches at the Catholic University in Paris.