New Challenges in Eastern Europe

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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One by one the concrete blocks crumbled. Euphoric crowds, undaunted by the December cold, chiseled away at the symbol of their division and imprisonment. Swarms of students scaled the wall’s heights triumphantly uncorking bottles of champagne. The Berlin Wall’s metamorphosis from an inanimate object of hate into a living wall of human emotion and pathos was swift and unexpected.

Throughout Eastern Europe, similar transformations, no less dramatic, continue to change the face of the former communist block. Now reality has replaced euphoria. Eastern Europe’s economy is in shambles. Centuries-old attempts to homogenize and suppress have erupted into a violent display of nationalist fervor. For the “hotbed of Europe,” the 20th century is ending the way it began – in confusion.

Freedom presents new dilemmas for Christianity. No longer is the church threatened by militant communism, a well-defined persecutor, but rather by undefined freedoms. In some countries, this is complimented by conditions close to anarchy. The communists’ attempt to destroy religion may have failed. Unhappily though, religion may destroy itself. Rival ethnic groups, bolstered by centuries of support and belief in their own religious affiliations, continue to march under their own banners.

Eastern Europe is a historical labyrinth. With the exception of Poland, national boundaries were nonexistent. Ethnic groups were separated by political boundries drawn with little regard to culture and geography. Family, faith and tradition kept alive the ethnic identities of those suppressed. Their most powerful ingredient was faith.

Until the 19th and early 20th centuries, Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia did not exist as modern political entities. They were lands disputed among the powerful Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian Empires. The Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, like Armenia and the Ukraine, were part of the Russian Empire. Today, these countries are an uneasy amalgamation of ethnic minorities, their muscles flexed after centuries of suppression.

Fused with this ethnic fervor is the rebirth of Christianity. In each country, Christianity is directly linked to the development of the modern state. Eastern Europe comprises a mix of the Christian churches. Throughout most of the region, Eastern Orthodoxy is intimately united with the culture and history of the people. Roman Catholicism is the historical faith in modern Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Croatia in northeastern Yugoslavia. The majority of ethnic Estonians and Latvians are members of the reformed, primarily Lutheran, congregations.

The death of Soviet-style communism has not solved Eastern Europe’s problems. Actually, communism’s swift demise has partially contributed to the escalation of tensions that plague the fledgling democracies.

In the Soviet Republic of the Ukraine, serious questions surround the relationship between the Russian Orthodox and the Byzantine Catholic Churches. The Byzantine Catholic Church, steeped in Orthodox ritual and tradition yet loyal to the pope, was fiercely persecuted by the Soviet regime. In 1946, Byzantine Catholic clergy were imprisoned, churches closed or transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church and believers forced to become Orthodox. Overnight, a community of 5 million disappeared.

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Tags: Christianity Cultural Identity Eastern Europe Economic hardships Communism/Communist