Review: Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe

by Päivi Billie Gynther

Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe

Ever since the Russian Orthodox Church in July 2008 adopted its Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Rights, the relationship between Orthodox Christianity and human rights has been a popular theme in European academic publishing. Of this multitude, one stands out because of its respectful stance to varying views. Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe: A Dialogue between Theological Paradigms and Socio-Legal Pragmatics, edited by Elisabeth-Alexandra Diamantopoulou and Louis-Léon Christians (Peter Lang 2018) consists of contributions written not only by socio-political and legal scholars but also by orthodox theologians and clerics.

Evangelical and Catholic scholars open the way for a debate by introducing their views on the subject. Stefan Tobler from Lucia Blaga University, Romania, explains that for the Protestants human dignity is an unconditional concept that belongs to every human person, irrespective for her or his moral behavior. Thus, Protestants are finding it difficult to understand the Russian teaching about human dignity—not only as an absolute but also—as a moral concept. Walter Lesch from the Catholic University of Leuven, in turn, describes how human rights were gradually integrated to Catholic social thought and suggests that rights language should be seen as the Esperanto of Ethics, as a language that can be used and developed by believers and non-believers alike.

Referring to the fact that majority-Orthodox countries quite often have been judged for religious freedom violations by the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), two scholars pose in Part 2 a question whether Orthodoxy as such is intolerant towards religious minorities, or whether we rather could trace historical and political causes for the multitude of litigations. Elisabeth-Alexandra Diamantopoulou analyses in a thorough way religious freedom cases that have been brought before the ECtHR against Greece. Effie Fokas presents the findings of her empirical qualitative research conducted in Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Russia, and suggests that the problems of religious freedom in these countries derive primarily from the peculiar relationship between religion and national identity. The challenge that the ECtHR hereby faces is how to apply its margin of appreciation doctrine towards these states.

A group of social scientists, four Greeks and one Russian, then continue the discussion within pragmatic contexts. Dimitris Christopoulos describes the divergent legal strategies of the Greek State against the traditional Islamic minority on the one hand and Muslims who have recently migrated on the other, and explores the possibilities of overcoming the existing ethnic-civic dichotomy. Dmitry Uzlaner analyses the famous Pussy Riot Trial conducted in response to the “Punk Prayer” performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012. According to him, this case raised the questions of who are considered as legitimate players in the post-secular state, and who has the power to decide where the boundary between religious and secular lies. Theodoros Koutroubas notes that, as the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church has not taken a formal position on human rights and as the local metropolitans enjoy a high degree of independence, at issue is not a single discourse within the Church but a spectrum of discourses. In the last chapter of Part 3 Nikos Ch. Maghioros and Christos N. Tsironis creditably draw attention to the facts that many misunderstandings can be ascribed to abstract, careless and confused rights-talk, that the use of polarized concepts tends to produce polarized explanations, and that rights criticism is not unique to orthodox theological debates; all European liberal democracies are facing challenges with rights, in particular with the right to freedom of thought, belief and religion.

Part 4 consists of contributions from theologians. Vasilios N. Makrides first explains the Orthodox conception of personhood as a background for understanding why human beings in Orthodoxy cannot be reduced to mere self-referential entities. He then compares the views of two distinguished orthodox scholars, Christos Yannaras and Aristotle Papanikolaou, on human rights and seeks to understand the impact of their backgrounds on the formation of differing standpoints.

Pantelis Kalaitzidis is the author of the chapter titled Individual versus Collective Rights, which sounds thought-provoking, at least for a reader with socio-legal orientation. Regrettably, secular standards of collective rights are not addressed at all. From a theological point of view, the author suggests that if only the orthodox theology of personhood, inclusive of the link between the individual and the community, was taken into account in the development of human rights doctrine, the excesses of both individualism and communitarianism could be corrected.

Grigorios D. Papathomas describes as one of the main problems that where the Church strives for ontological unity, human rights encourage diversity of churches. Orthodox ecclesiology does not reject human rights, but does not either prioritize them over the unique mission of the Church. The author stresses that the Church should not be seen as a mere ideological association, nor should its canons be viewed as a law in a secular sense. The church must be recognized in accordance with its self-identification, not only as an icon of the Kingdom but already as part of it, in a state of continuous fulfillment, struggling to change the fallen world.

Tamara Grdzelidze summarizes the main points of criticism made of the Western human rights doctrine by the Russian Orthodox Church. First, religious views shall not be subordinated to human rights. Second, the concept of sobornost as a Christian community in which the individual freely seeks to renounce her self-interests for the benefit of community, shall not be ignored. Third, the conception of rights must not be narrowed down to individual rights, thus neglecting the relational ontology of human personhood.

Alfons Brüning describes stereotypes that have determined the tone and content of the debate over rights in the recent past.  In the Orthodox East, human rights are still often seen as manifestations of Western ungodliness and decadence, whereas in the West, Orthodox Christianity is seen merely a subservient to the authoritarian state. Particularly problematic for Protestant churches is the way in which the Russian Orthodox Church combines the concept of human dignity with the concept of deification. Other seemingly difficult concepts for secular human rights scholars are those of sin, struggle to overcome sin, and the dual nature of inner and outer freedom. The author suggests that discussants should move on from superficial talks to identifying unresolved tensions within the human rights doctrine.

As the wrap-up of this collective book, Jean-Paul Willaime highlights how crucial it is for a sound development of the rights doctrine that Christians do not withdraw themselves from the debate. He mentions the radicalization of individual rights—manifested for instance in claims for euthanasia, eugenics and biological children for same-sex couples—as a trend against which the voice of churches is needed.  He visions that, one day, Christianity may be the main defender of human rights for the poor and disabled in the increasingly brutal ultra-liberal competitive society.

For the very reason of many perspectives, this book offers readers interested in the evolution of rights-talk a good opportunity to deepen the understanding of the reception of Western doctrine in Eastern Orthodoxy. A point made in several chapters of the book is that the 2008 Document by the Russian Orthodox Church was intended, above all, as an opening for a dialogue, as a draft that leaves space for the prospect of mutual learning. The question remains whether secular human rights scholars can humble themselves before the fact that they too may have things to learn along these lines.

Orthodox Christianity and Human Rights in Europe can be recommended to anyone who has a need to better understand and be understood in the language of rights. With one exception, the contributors show not only expertise but also humility, free of arrogance and know-it-all attitude.


Päivi Billie Gynther is Doctor of Political Sciences, Freelance Researcher and Member of the Orthodox Church in Finland. Committed to taking Luke 10:27 seriously.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.