Church History 7 - The Orthodox Church Since WWI

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The Balkans and eastern Europe

In bringing about the fall of the Turkish, Austrian, and Russian empires, World War I provoked significant changes in the structures of the Orthodox Church. On the western borders of what was then the Soviet Union, in the newly born republics of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Orthodox minorities established themselves as autonomous churches. The first three joined the jurisdiction of Constantinople, and the Lithuanian diocese remained nominally under Moscow. In Poland, which then included several million Belorussians and Ukrainians, the ecumenical patriarch established an autocephalous church (1924) over the protests of Patriarch Tikhon. After World War II the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian autonomies were again suppressed, and in Poland the Orthodox Church was first reintegrated to the jurisdiction of Moscow and later was declared autocephalous again (1948).

In the Balkans, changes were even more significant. The five groups of Serbian dioceses (Montenegro, patriarchate of Karlovci, Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Old Serbia) were united (1920-22) under one Serbian patriarch, residing in Belgrade, the capital of the new Yugoslavia. Similarly, the Romanian dioceses of Moldavia-Walachia, Transylvania, Bukovina, and Bessarabia formed the new patriarchate of Romania (1925), the largest autocephalous church in the Balkans. Finally, in 1937, after some tension and a temporary schism, the patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Church of Albania.

After World War II, Communist regimes were established in the Balkan states. There were no attempts, however, at liquidating the churches entirely, similar to the persecutions that took place in Russia in the 1920s and '30s. In both Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, church and state were legally separated. In Romania, paradoxically, the Orthodox Church remained legally linked to the Communist state. With its solid record of resistance to the Germans, the Serbian Church was able to preserve more independence from the government than its sister churches of Bulgaria and Romania. Generally speaking, however, all the Balkan churches adopted an attitude of loyalty to the new regime, according to the pattern given by the patriarchate of Moscow. At that price, they could keep some theological schools, some publications, and the possibility to worship. This is also the case of the Orthodox minority in Czechoslovakia, which was united and organized into an autocephalous church by the patriarchate of Moscow in 1951. Only in Albania did a Communist government announce the total liquidation of organized religion, following the Cultural Revolution of 1966-68.

Among the national Orthodox churches, the Church of Greece is the only one that preserved the legal status it acquired in the 19th century as the national state church. As such, it was supported by the successive political regimes of Greece. It could also develop an impressive internal mission. The Brotherhood Zoe ("Life"), organized according to the pattern of Western religious orders, was successful in creating a large system of church schools.

The Communist governments throughout eastern Europe collapsed during the late 1980s and early 1990s, effectively dissolving state control over churches and bringing new political and religious freedoms into the region.

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