“Secular” is a tricky word. Most associate it with “no religion,” “absence of religion,” or “decline of religion.” At one time, it was pretty much the consensus in the Western world that with increased modernization, which usually meant technological and scientific advancement, religion would no longer really be needed and would simply fade away. This is one of the many examples of how irony drives history, as a consensus held by Western intelligentsia over the post two centuries—and with enormous arrogance—has proven manifestly false. Religion is not going away; it never went anywhere.
That tragic irony is on full display in Russia and Turkey. As most of the media, regional experts, and government officials pay attention to Turkey’s military provocations in the eastern Mediterranean or Russia’s influence in Syria—as they should—no one seems to be noticing a remarkable parallelism that has emerged between the two countries, and it has to do with religion. In both countries, the religion-hating kind of secularism took root almost at the same time: for Russia in 1917 under Lenin and for Turkey in 1923 under Ataturk. For decades, the world witnessed not simply the laïcité of France, but the active oppression and repression of religion, which lead to a cultural and political cleansing of religious influence in Russia and Turkey. The cultural cleansing is evident in the fact that to be Russian or Turkish was absolutely severed from any religious identity. And while the majority religions—Orthodox Christianity and Islam—both suffered under these secularist regimes, religious minorities had it just as bad, if not worst. In Turkey, alone, Orthodox Christianity in Constantinople went from over 100,000 adherents just after World War II to under 2,000 today.
As of 4 July 2020, the amendment to the Russian Constitution—first proposed by President Vladimir Putin in January, smoothly approved by the State Duma and Constitutional Court in March, and confirmed in a nationwide referendum with 78,56 per cent of votes—has taken effect. As widely reported, the main purpose of the amendment was to secure Putin the possibility of two more terms in office. But what significance does the constitutional amendment of 2020 have for the Russian Orthodox Church?
There are four places in the amended constitution which are the result of successful lobbying by the Moscow Patriarchate.
Christian leaders and secular governments around the world have condemned, with good reason, the recent decision of a Turkish court to reconvert Hagia Sophia into a mosque. Indeed, this ruling is just the latest step in a century-long effort by the Turkish government to erase both the history and presence of Christianity in Turkey. And while President Erdogan’s advocacy for this change is little more than crude pandering to conservative Islamists in the wake of growing criticism, the ruling forces a series of hard questions for the advocates of persecuted Christian minorities in the region who use the framework of “religious freedom.”
For starters, there is the question of whether or not the forced transformation of Hagia Sophia from a mosque into a museum in 1935 was, objectively speaking, the just outcome of an aspiring democratic society. It is no secret that Kemal Ataturk, the engineer of the modern Turkish state, pursued this change as part of a wide-ranging plan to break from the historic authority of Islam in Ottoman society and to advance his vision for a future Turkey that would be radically secular.
In the wake of advice disseminated earlier this month across a variety of Greek media channels that the practice of yoga can be helpful to manage anxiety provoked by COVID-19, the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece felt compelled to make an official declaration that the practice of yoga is “absolutely incompatible with the Orthodox Christian faith and has no place in the life of Christians” (emphasis mine). This is not the first time the Synod decided to warn about the dangers of yoga, as it made a similar proclamation in 2016 on the heels of the World Health Organization proclaiming June 21st as World Yoga Day.
Is it wise for the Church of Greece to issue such a statement about yoga? And is yoga absolutely incompatible with the Orthodox Christian faith?