Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Balkan Idols" by Vjekoslav Perica [3]



The opening section briefly discusses the importance of sacred sites--in this case, physical symbols such as churches, mosques, monasteries, shrines, etc.--as "physical evidence of the perennial existence of the religious community and, by nationalist expansion, of the nation..." (This is actually a quote from Peter van der Veer in the book).

This section is only two pages long, and the first page is a summary of some of the deliberate damage done to religious and cultural sites throughout the former Yugoslavia. The wars of the 1990s:

"...highlighted the crucial, centuries-old problem in the area: a mixed population of diverse ethnic and religious descent and vague cultural boundaries that makes the creation of culturally homogenous nation-states via partition of land and peaceful drawing of state borders virtually impossible, or "possible" only at the expense of destructive perpetual wars>"

And in the Balkans, centuries of history and of intermixing of various peoples had created a densely-interwoven religious topography. A strong impediment for any one ethnic/nationalist/religious group seeking to carve out an exclusive nation-state.


Perica believes that in the modern era, patriotism and national identities are more important social forces than religious beliefs. Beliefs, that is--not the religious institutions. Modern nation-states have their own histories and myths which form a "civil religion" to which citizens owe their allegiance. Myth, Perica says, is "a narrative about origin," which means that the histories abou the "birth" of nations are often 'sacred' rather than fact-based. He writes:

"According to functionalist explanations of myth, myth explains and justifies the existence and distribution of political power under current circumstances. Myths make nations, and nations make myths. The crucial difference among [Serbs, Croats, and Slavic Muslims] is not religion...but the myth of national origin, which is consecrated by native religious institutions."

Nationalism requires acceptance of myth. In the former Yugoslavia, religious institutions were tied to national identities.


In this short section, it is noted that in Yugoslavia religion was not about "private conscience" but of "public identity". The link between one's faith and one's ethnic identity was not absolute, but very nearly so--if a Serb converted to Catholicism he or she often 'became' Croat or possibly Slovene as a result. The correlation was very strong and deep-rooted.

"The major religious institutions worked together with modern secular nationalistic intellectuals on the task of creating the nations and nationalities of Yugoslavia by means of mythmaking, linguistic efforts, commemorations, and holidays and through the creation of "national saints" and calculations involving history and memory.

The Serbian Orthodox Church

This sections examines the development of the Serbian Orthodox Church as "cultural and quasi-political institution," crucial to the development of Serbian national identity. In some ways, this process was typical of Orthodoxy, where the Church is generally tied to the state and the ethnic community. In some ways, however, the Serbian example is more extreme, as the Church has developed what Michael B. Petrovich aptly termed a "Serbian faith" in which Serbian children were taught verses about a Serb God reigning in heaven with Serb angels at his side. In this same quote, Petrovich says that:

"This role of the Serbian church had little to do with religion either as theology or as a set of personal beliefs and convictions."

The central element of the Serb faith is, of course, the Kosovo myth, in which the aforementioned national mythological history is fused with religious symbolism and import--the legendary decision by Lazar to die in this world so that he would be victorious in the next is certainly more than standard historical symbolism.

Perica details how the patriarchate in Pec served as a phantom Serb 'state' within the Ottoman Empire, keeping the flame of Serbian nationalism alive while inevitably furthering and enriching the fusion of national and religious mythology that characterizes modern Serb nationalism. Kosovo was the "Serbian Jerusalem" in Serb mythology.

Also discussed is the institution of native or 'ethnic' saints, a practice well-developed in Serbian Orthodoxy. These Serb saints were not only an important element in Serbian Orthodoxy but also in national identity. And the number of saints doubled under the communist government. The church saw a great deal of growth under the Tito regime (as did all national faiths), including a great deal of building and publishing, even though the fusion between the Church and ethnic nationalism remained intact.

Croatian Catholicism

By contrast, Croatian Catholicism was late to the game, as it was only in the 19th Century that the native church began to achieve a more indigenous ethnic identity; while most priests had been Croats (and many had used the old Glagolithic script and the vernacular), most bishops had been foreigners. And while the Serb church had a long and well-developed tradition of ethnic saints, the Croatian church has only relatively recently been successful in pushing the Vatican to name Croat saints.

The church also did well under communism, growing in size and building new institutions.

The Muslim Religious Organization (The Islamic Community)

Until the establishment of Austria rule in 1878, Bosnian Muslim religious leaders, scholars, and clerics trained in Istanbul. The Austrian period spurred a turn towards religious self-administration, a trend that intensified after the establishment of Yugoslavia.

The central government generally looked favorably on the Muslim community, seeing their organizations as useful counterweights to the two dominant national religions. Despite the infamous Handzar Division and other evidence of fascist complicity, especially by higher-ranking religious officials, Perica states that the majority of lower clergy and lay officials sided with the Partisan resistance.

In general, Yugoslavia was good for the Islamic community, and relations between Muslim institutions and the state were good.

The Church and Nation of Macedonia

A breakaway national church, the establishment of which was actually encouraged by the communist government as part of its effort to established and institutionalize a distinct Macedonian national identity. As a result, the Macedonian Orthodox Church was the most patriotic religious institution in Tito's Yugoslavia.

Religious Minorities

There were many religious minorities in Yugoslavia, including a small Jewish community, various Protestant denominations, and assorted others including Romanian Orthodoxy, Sufi orders, and the Old Catholic Church.

With a couple of exceptions (Romanian, and a Slovak Evangelical church), these minority faiths were not ethnically-based. The Protestant denominations especially tended to be multi-ethnic and therefore immune to the nationalist passions which were already threatening the fabric of Yugoslav society in the early 1980s. This most likely explains why the regime went to such lengths to document and accommodate such marginal sects.

Interfaith Relations

Interfaith relations between the two main national churches, and also between either or both of them and the Islamic community, have traditionally not been good. Outside threats could motivate the Serb Orthodox and Croatian Catholic churches to cooperate, but little else could. Even under Ottoman rule, Orthodoxy and Catholicism tended to fight each other for prominence, influence, and advantage rather than to make common cause against their Muslim rulers. The growth of nationalism and national identities in the 19th Century exacerbated these tensions. Ecumenical activities, such as those of Bishop Josip Juraj Strossmayer, were encouraged by the regime after the creation of Yugoslavia, and ecumenical figures were held up as examples of religious figures living the civil religion of "Brotherhood and Unity.

No comments: