Eyes Wide Shut: Discussion about Orthodoxy and Democracy in Serbian Theology and Thought

In: Politics, Society and Culture in Orthodox Theology in a Global Age
Branko Sekulić
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Preconditions of the Discussion

The tradition of democracy, which implies the question of tolerance, individualism and freedom, John Binns writes, is the product of a European post-Enlightenment period and is as such not too close to the Eastern European socio-political context.1 Viewed from the perspective of the two-thousand-year history of Christianity, Binns continues, the democratic traditions are experienced as relatively new civilizational achievements, and although Western Christianity has over time made them compatible with the Christian faith, Eastern Christianity, generally speaking, still retains a certain distance from them. This poses the question: Can Orthodoxy and democracy coexist at all?2 The answers to this question are of course twofold: negative and affirmative.

On the one hand, following Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, according to Christopher Marsh, some authors see Orthodoxy and democracy as mutually exclusive, arguing that the churches of the European East are solely dedicated to preserving national identity, making it impossible for them to participate meaningfully in building a constructive civil society and democratic worldview.3 An additional argument for a negative attitude towards this issue is found in the Byzantine imperial experience – the concept of the symphony – which is considered constitutive for the Orthodox understanding of the relationship between church and state.4 According to this understanding, Pantelis Kalaitzidis says, a monarchist worldview is considered to be in harmony with monotheism, while a democratic one is considered to be consistent with polytheism.5

On the other hand, we have a number of authors who answer the question of whether Orthodoxy and democracy can coexist in the affirmative. In this regard, Aristotle Papanikolaou rejects the clash of civilizations thesis and that of Byzantine imperial experience as crucial and argues that the theological foundations of Orthodoxy themselves support and develop communitarian forms of democratic social organization.6 Moreover, certain authors note that, in many contemporary societies where Orthodoxy is the dominant form of the Christian faith, the stability of democracy depends precisely on the role the church plays in them.7 Moreover, according to Papanikolaou, striving to achieve a communion with God directs Christians toward the establishment of a political community that, in a broader sense, affirms precisely the basic axioms of liberal democracy.8

When considering the nature of Orthodoxy and democratic potential within the framework of Serbian theology and thought, however, there are two things to discuss, the broad and the narrow contexts.

The Broad Context

In the broad context, one should take into consideration the fact that Orthodox believers from Eastern European, post-communist countries become, as Papanikolaou notes, confused when faced with the possibility of their traditionalist countries becoming liberal democracies.9 Namely, after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, Papanikolaou continues, the Orthodox world of the European East was completely unprepared for the turbulent political changes that followed, when the Orthodox churches, like most of society, overwhelmingly embraced democracy because they saw in it the antithesis of communism.10 But churches very quickly became reserved towards what liberal democracy brought with it: religious pluralism that allows other confessions and religions to have an equal impact on society; human rights including the right to abortion, LGBT rights and gender equality; secularization as a threat to the deep connection between a particular Orthodox church; and a particular national and cultural identity and the like.11 The position of the church in Eastern Europe is of particular socio-political importance, which is particularly evident in the territory of the former Yugoslavia where, according to Ivo Žanić, politics has often been guided by priests throughout history. This was so because, apart from their intensive participation in public life, the church was sometimes the strongest substitute for the state.12 This aspiration to control the public space became visible particularly after the dissolution of the SFR Yugoslavia, when, after almost half a century, the church institution became a constitutive social factor, and an inevitable element in the construction of the identity of the post-Yugoslav communities.

But this is not a kind of post-Yugoslav specificity; rather, it is part of a broader, global phenomenon that is taking place within the so-called post-secular period, whose main characteristic is the emergence of religious identities from the sphere of privacy and their assumption of significant roles in social and political decision making.13 According to Jürgen Habermas, religion appears to be a great temptation for 21st-century society because this process of secularization brings with it a strong growth of fundamentalist communities and the political instrumentalization of violent religious potential.14 Many of today’s world conflicts are presented as religious ones in the media, which shifts religion from its former socio-political margins to the very centre of contemporary socio-political events.15 But the importance of religion, Habermas says, is evident not only on a global scale but also on many national levels where it has taken on the role of interpreter in some very delicate social issues (abortion, euthanasia, assisted reproductive technology, emigrants and refugees, etc.), becoming a powerful actor in shaping public opinion and culture.16 In this sense, the key question of the post-secular age is not whether religion is public or private, but rather what a particular religious institution represents within a particular socio-political context – for instance, whether it is more left-wing or more right-wing, pro-democratic or anti-democratic, whether it is more conservative or more liberal, and the like – i.e., what is its ideological agenda?

The Narrow Context

Here we come to the narrow context and what is specific to the post-Yugoslav spaces, within which religious institutions – at least as far as the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are concerned – are ideologically profiled as some of the most important bearers of ethnonational ideological agendas. Namely, by participating in the overthrow of the communist system and SFR Yugoslavia and striving for democratic changes that were primarily understood as the establishment of sovereign nation states, Željko Mardešić (aka Jakov Jukić) says, churches implemented what he calls the theology of national liberation.17 What was supposed to be the democratic right of peoples to self-determination, however, turned very quickly into ethnonationalistic policies of ethnic cleansing of the former Yugoslavia. According to official statistics, about 130,000 people died and about 4 million fled or were displaced.18 Due to such circumstances, the reputation of the aforementioned religious institutions was compromised because their structures, leaning towards the ethnonational policies of the people they held as their own, contributed to the increase in interethnic intolerance and the brutality of the conflict between Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks and Albanians.19 These institutions understood democratic changes as strengthening their own position within the newly formed ethnonationally homogeneous states, demanding a central role in them, which they largely achieved in the end,20 with the result that they are now more often perceived as a political rather than a religious factor.

Therefore, what is today seen as the democratic transition of the successor states of the former Yugoslavia is primarily burdened by anti-communist rhetoric that has given a strong impetus to ethnonationalist policies in which the aforementioned religious institutions are also stuck. Thus, the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church will primarily perceive democracy as an opportunity to collect debts for decades of social marginalization during the rule of the Yugoslav communists, while its Orthodox discourse will become burdened by Serbian ethnonationalist ideology that unquestionably carries the burden of crime against its neigbours – Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians. In accordance with that, the Serbian Orthodox community, due to the insufficient desire or inability of the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church to face this type of aberration within its own ranks, became trapped between ethnototalitarian ideology and ethnoclerical aspirations. At the intersection of these two currents, the so-called phenomenon of ethnoreligiosity arose, which is the greatest challenge to Christianity in post-Yugoslav societies today; it is no longer possible outside of this to adequately consider and process the ideological concept on which the Catholic Church in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina is based and the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Conditions of the Discussion

First of all, it should be noted that this is not a generalization of Serbian Orthodoxy as such, nor the Serbian Orthodox Church as such, but only a critical assessment of the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church. By succumbing to ethnototalitarian ideology and ethnoclerical aspirations, it caused a number of problems, both within the Serbian Orthodox community itself and in the wider socio-political context of the entire former Yugoslavia.

By succumbing to an ethnototalitarian ideology, the religious institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church turned to the doctrine that strives to create an ethnically pure, completely ideologically homogeneous and absolutely sovereign state in the entire area where one ethnic corpus is present, regardless of whether part of that corpus is spatially located within the borders of some other state.21 It strives therefore for the complete homogenization of a certain community in order to create ethnic uniformity and unanimity – a social state in which individuals declare themselves members of one ethnic group and who think in exactly the same, organic, totalitarian way.22 As part of this doctrine, the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church developed certain ruling aspirations within its ranks that fall within the domain of ethnoclericalism – the concept of an ethnic (ethnonational) church whose clergy strive to be leaders of that ethnic (ethnonational) community but who refuse to take responsibility for their own political actions in the ways to which secular leaders are obliged.23 This concept is viewed as a specific Balkan contribution to contemporary religious fundamentalism, which is a kind of attempt at re-establishing the pre-modern role of the religious organization that was an important factor in preserving ethnic identity in times when the church institution was the only fulcrum, along with the dynasty, of a particular social community.24 The combination of these two things, as previously mentioned, gave rise to the phenomenon that we recognize as ethnoreligiosity. Although we will not go into detail about this phenomenon – because there is no space or need for it here, it is necessary to define it in order to at least gain general insight into the contours of ethnoreligiosity as such and thus more constructively understand the seriousness of the situation in which the Serbian Orthodox Church found itself.25

Ethnoreligiosity can be understood as a phenomenon resulting from the usurpation of the religious aspect of human life by the ethnic one and that emerges as a consequence of the secular ideological overtaking of the structures of the religious organization in order to give sacral connotation to a particular ethnonational myth or myths.26 This is characterized by the spirit of conflict, which entails a whole spectrum of problems related to the religious organization, religious community, politics, theology, identity and social context whereby the whole dimension of interrelations between the secular and sacral aspects of human life leads to a state of intense crisis and a potential breakdown. The final manifestation of ethnoreligiosity occurs through the idea of the existence of a mortal enemy to establish the ideology of the memory of evil (a phenomenon generated by the manipulation of historical memory and its religious justification, a combination that is a very fortuitous tool for the achievement of certain political aims), and its associated woundological worldview (the psychological state of a person who builds communication with the environment based on the trauma they have experienced, with the intention to earn compassion, and thereby to have a certain situation within their own control as much as possible). This results in the formation of a sacralized political concept characterized by the distortion of basic religious attitudes towards the world and anti-rationalism as well as the state of permanent conflict.

Today, the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church and its community are facing a serious challenge in this phenomenon that, nolens volens, affects the Church quite a bit, and thus the consideration of the issue of Orthodoxy and democracy in contemporary Serbian theology and thought outside of ethnoreligiosity is not possible. Therefore, in terms of gaining as concrete an understanding of the scale of this issue as possible, we will consider it on two existing levels: on the level of what the Serbian Orthodox Church says about itself in this context and on the level of what its works say about it.

What Does the Serbian Orthodox Church Say about Itself?

At the level of what the Serbian Orthodox Church says about itself on the issue concerned, we will take as paradigmatic the stance of the late Serbian Orthodox theologian Radovan Bigović. According to Bigović, the attitude of the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church can be characterized as one that balances between the two options of complete rejection of the democratic traditions and their unreserved acceptance and manifests itself through the acceptance of the democratic process under certain circumstances.27 In this respect, Bigović first approaches the problems of the relationship between Orthodoxy and democracy through the lens of Serbian Orthodoxy generally, noting that Orthodoxy cannot be identified with any social system, with any form of state, be it monarchy, republic, democracy, autocracy or something similar, because Orthodoxy is exclusively a church, universal, ecumenical, all-embracing, the essence of which is not of this world.28 But, Bigović continues, if one considers the principles on which democracy rests as an idea, it can be argued that, to the Orthodox Church, the democratic state system is far closer than any other.29 “If a state should exercise the rule of law, if it is truly free and democratic, then the Church functioning in such a society would have the necessary freedom of action, i.e. the freedom to put her mission into practice.” Here, however, Bigović delves deeper into the issue of the connection between democratic principles and the Orthodox religion, arguing that despite its closeness to a democratic order, the church cannot accept the democratic utilitarian ethics and axiology prevalent in liberal democratic societies, given they encourage egoism, the will for power and many other anomalies that are incompatible with the Orthodox worldview. Accordingly, he insists on the distinction between a liberal democratic ideology, which, according to him, is based on the inviolability of the ideology of human rights and a liberal democratic state as neutral and as such allows the existence of different beliefs and worldviews, without interfering with the individual’s freedom of choice.

On this point, Bigović is moving from a general account of the problems of the relationship between Orthodoxy and democracy to their relationship in the Serbian Orthodox context, which is characterized by both openness and disappointment.

The Openness of the Serbian Orthodox Church to Democratic Change

In favour of openness, Bigović notes that immediately at the beginning of the fall of the Communist Party and the establishment of the multiparty system in Serbia, the Holy Assembly of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church welcomed the overall democratization of society with its decisions and messages and blessed the opportunity to make political and social choices.30 After the one-party Yugoslav system had forbidden this, the Serbian Orthodox Church considered the time of freedom to have returned to Serbia, with the right of each individual to express their opinion without fear, and in the parliamentary elections, in their own opinion, to choose the political option they considered to primarily contribute to Serbia’s socio-political prosperity.31 Political and party pluralism has been characterized as a welcome and necessary change, one that must persist and be empowered. But two remarks have been added to clarify their message: the first remark was directed to Orthodox believers to remain united in spirit without paying attention to the differences in political views, while another remark emphasized that the church institution should remain neutral in the democratic processes in Serbia. Because the Serbian Orthodox Church is a patriotic rather than a partisan institution, its clergy is thereby forbidden from being actively involved in any kind of political engagement.32 “These public statements of the Holy Synod of Bishops,” Bigović notes, “may lead to an unequivocal conclusion that the Serbian Church supports democratization of the society, political and political party pluralism, that it remains neutral in relation to political parties, and that her clergy cannot be ‘professional politicians’.” The Serbian Orthodox Church, Bigović emphasizes, pointed out that as a patriotic institution it cannot be limited by socio-political criteria and that its role is above the daily political events embodied in overall concern for the Serbian people as such. Accordingly, the church press of the late 1980s and early 1990s reported on supporting the activities of the Serbian leadership and the crucial role of the church in the life and development of Serbian society, noting that there could be no strong state without a strong church.33

Upon Milošević coming into power, the Serbian Orthodox Church expected that, after a decade of marginalization, the democratic transition would return it to the role that it claims belongs to it historically, namely, a central place in the public life of the Serbian society, an official presence in schools, hospitals, military, media, and the like.34 During the mandate of Slobodan Milošević, however, this did not happen, and, moreover, it enflamed the relationship between the church and state powers. According to Bigović, this was a consequence of disguised communist figures at the top of Serbian politics who turned democratic processes solely to their own advantage.35

Disappointment of the Serbian Orthodox Church with Democratic Changes

Thus, after the openness of the Serbian Orthodox Church to democratic changes, we come to its disappointment with them, which, apart from events on the national plane, manifested itself through events on the international plane. More specifically, according to Bigović, this disappointment was demonstrated through the undemocratic and inhumane policies of a democratic Western, Euro-American world against the Serbian people and the Serbian state. This disappointment was fed by two things: the portrayal of the Serb people by the Western media in a bad light during the Serbian aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo during the 1990s, and NATO’s 10-week bombing of the Serbian state territory (24 March to 1 June 1999) as the closing act of the Kosovo War (1998–1999).36 Due to such circumstances, Bigović said, this led on the one hand to the resistance by some church structures to the democratically elected government of Slobodan Milošević and on the other to reservations about democratic changes of the Western, liberal type in general. According to Bigović, this can best be seen from an analysis of the church press, the opinions of certain Serbian Orthodox intellectuals, and texts published by certain theologians and members of the Holy Synod in those years, all of which clearly indicate a radical difference between their own views and the official position of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Some went so far as to openly adhere to ethnonationalist ideology, participating in the implementation of what Tonči Kuzmanić called a radical evil – a policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide aimed not at the establishment of a state but of the people (Volk) as an attempt to define the masses in strictly ethnic terms.37

What Do the Works of the Serbian Orthodox Church Say about It?

After looking at what the Serbian Orthodox Church says about itself on the issue of Orthodoxy and democracy, we will now look at what its works say about it. On this occasion, Ivan Čolović’s thesis about the spiritual space of the nation will be taken into account.38 This thesis shows how the Serbian Orthodox Church, as an institution, regardless of what it said about itself, realized its democratic potential and manifested its Orthodox nature, both during the last war in Yugoslavia and in the post-Yugoslav period.

In this regard, by explaining the idea of the spiritual space of the nation, Čolović stated that it is a space that remained outside the ethnic boundaries of a particular ethnonational corpus after the war in the former Yugoslavia (1991–1995) – a war aimed at dividing territories according to ethnicity.39 In the case of Serbian Orthodoxy, these would be all those parts of the former Yugoslavia where the Serbian population lives or has lived and which do not formally belong to the Serbian state. Consequently, the spatial unity of an ethnonational collective occurs on the plane of symbolic topography, that is, as an integral part of the ethnonationalistic imaginaria. In this regard, Čolović divides the spiritual space of the nation from the Serbian perspective into four aspects. Two of these aspects can be taken as having consequences primarily for the democratic potential of the Serbian Orthodox Church and Serbian Orthodoxy, and two for the very nature of Orthodoxy.

The Nature of the Democratic Potential of the Serbian Orthodox Church

The first two aspects that we will address are those related to the manifestation of democratic potential. One aspect that designates the spiritual space of the nation as one that encompasses all members of a certain people (Volk), regardless of where they live in the former Yugoslavia, and an aspect that includes as the spiritual space of the nation all territories that contain remnants of national history and culture of that people (Volk), such as the remains of medieval cities, monasteries, battlefields, places of mass graves, tombs, ossuaries, and the like.40 Thanks to this, Čolović says, a certain territory and a certain population is considered part of the spiritual space of the nation, regardless of the fact that they are not part of it in an actual sense.41 In the case of the Serbian Orthodox Church, a good example is the period from June 1988 to August 1989, when the relics of Prince Lazar were carried through parts of SFR Yugoslavia with the intention of integrating the Serbian Orthodox population into the Yugoslav Federation.42 The event of May 1991 has the same significance: the relics of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirović were transported from the Monastery of Saint Sava in Libertyville (USA), where he was buried, to Lelić Monastery near Valjevo (Serbia), which was his endowment. It was the final act of the termination of the great schism within the Serbian Orthodox Church, which had begun in 1963 when the community in the American diaspora separated from its Serbian mother church. But it was also the act of integrating the Serbian Orthodox diaspora with its mother country.43 Therefore, these two events can be taken as examples par excellence of determining the boundaries of the Serbian spiritual national space, as to whether a potential (desired) integration of the population or of the territory into the Serbian state was needed. Whether it was the intention of the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church or not, the ensuing war in Yugoslavia led to the conclusion that the events with the carrying of the relics of Lazar and the return of Velimirović heralded the policy of ethnic cleansing and of the violent attempt to seize territories that the Serbian ethnonationalistic agenda considered their own. The peak of the event of the transfer of Prince Lazar’s relics through the territory of the Yugoslav Federation was the 600th celebration of Vidovdan at Gazimestan on 28 June 1989, during which Milošević was presented by the Serbian Orthodox Church leaders as a long-awaited statesman, a new Lazar who would return dignity to Serbs and Serbia.44 By dignity, the Serbian Orthodox Church meant their dissatisfaction with the treatment that, according to them, Serbia had endured within SFR Yugoslavia, arguing that it was doubly disadvantaged: with respect to status because of its enormous victimhood in WWI was not valued and appreciated enough, and iwth respect to space because the delineation of state borders by the communists in the Yugoslav Federation left many Serbs outside the Serbian state.45

With Milošević, however, they did not experience the return of dignity to Serbia, in the way they thought that it should be returned. According to Čolović, this love lasted for a short time because Milošević very quickly removed the church and other creators of ethnonational discourse – the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Association of Writers of Serbia, intellectuals at the University of Belgrade and the like – from its governing system, and he did that in such a manner that he kept the ideology and got rid of the ideologists.46 This led to an increasingly expressive and clear dissociation of the Serbian Orthodox Church as an institution from the official Serbian state policy, condemning its holders, claiming that they were imprisoned in the ideology of a failed communist system, disrupting the equal democratic dialogue in society, and thus not allowing the church to take a place that, according to church leaders, belongs to it historically.47 This resulted in part of the Serbian Orthodox Church turning to Bosnian Serbs and the creators of the Republika Srpska (convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić and convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić), where the church institution was given a much more important place in the creation of socio-political life.48 In addition, there was a certain bitterness about Milošević’s policies, which, according to some bishops, did not sufficiently support the political efforts of the Bosnian Serbs.49 Their intention to govern the socio-political reality is best seen in the conclusion of the Holy Synod of Bishops that there is no valid political agreement that can be made on behalf of the Serbian people without the prior consent and blessing of the Orthodox Serbian Church (1991). It can also be seen in the statement that the Serbian people have the right to reject illegal borders that the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia made in 1943 (1992), and in the rejection of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan as a proposal to end the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1993).50 If we translate this into the language of democracy, we could say that the welcoming of the democratization of Serbian society and the blessing of freedom of choice in political and social commitments expressed by the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the early 1990s was addressed exclusively to Serbian Orthodox. It was directed especially at those who do not live in the territory of Serbia but in other successor states of SFR Yugoslavia, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, to stimulate them to secede from their home countries in order to join Serbia. In support of this thesis, we can use the fact that, during the 1980s and the 1990s, some Serbian Orthodox bishops openly called for the division of Yugoslavia between Serbs and Croats.51

The Nature of the Orthodoxy of the Serbian Orthodox Church

This brings us to the remaining two aspects of Čolović’s thesis on the spiritual space of nation, which we can relate to the description of the nature of the orthodoxy of the Serbian Orthodox Church: an aspect that signifies the spiritual space of the nation as one made up of the earthly and heavenly realms, and the aspect which, under the spiritual space of the nation, considers its already held part – that which is within the physical boundaries of a particular spiritual space of the nation – and its latent part – what will be obtained when nationally unconscious members of the community become aware and receive communion.52

When Serbia lost the war in 1995 and began withdrawing to borders drawn by the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia in 1943, the Serbian Orthodox Church saw this as a consequence of both Milošević’s betrayal of the Serbian Orthodox and pressure from the international community and the West, which was never favourable toward the Serbs. The Holy Synod of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church considered the defeat of Serbia in the war a violent act against the Serbian Orthodox people’s freedom of choice. According to them, these Orthodox Serbs pleaded to live in united Serbian countries, which, aside from Serbia and Montenegro, include eastern Herzegovina, part of Bosnia, part of Croatia and Kosovo.53 In doing so, through its own interpretation of democracy the Serbian Orthodox Church also expressed the nature of its own Orthodoxy, which is unquestionably bounded by the agenda of ethnonationalistic content. Its rhetoric, which belongs to the two aforementioned aspects of the nature of Orthodoxy of the Serbian Orthodox Church only further confirms this. The story of the Serbian kingdom of heaven is primarily intended to highlight the difference between Serbian heroes who, like Prnce Lazar and his soldiers in the battle of Kosovo in 1389, laid down their lives for the eternal glory of the Serbian people on the one hand and traitors who turned away from the Serbian people when they were most needed on the other.54 Accordingly, the heavens will reward those who – between the earthly and the heavenly realms – have chosen the latter, opening thereby the doors of Heavenly Serbia to themselves.55 Heavenly Serbia presents a kind of idealized image of the Serbs as the most spiritual and humane people on the planet. After going through the passage of historical events, they finally find peace in reconciliation with God in that Heavenly Serbia.56 It is also worth noting that the story of Heavenly Serbia serves as a narrative of comfort for the Serbian people for their political and military failures. The story of the latent spiritual space of the nation, however, is primarily aimed at pointing out unbelievers, apostates from the Serbian ethnic corpus who refuse to accept that the essence of their existence is found in Serbianism and Orthodoxy as a homogeneous and indivisible unity.57 These anational people, in that part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, are perceived as a field of mission, as objects of evangelization, though here the evangelization is not done in accordance with the New Testament but according to ethnonationalistic principles.


According to Radmila Radić, the Serbian Orthodox Church considers itself to be a major element of authentic national identity, and its role is patriotic.58 On the one hand, this means that the impulse for a defense of the Serbian ethnonational identity lies in its very nature because the church believes that this identity cannot survive nor can it can develop if it is internally divided or separated from its Orthodox roots.On the other hand, nationalism for the Serbian Orthodox Church represents the possibility of preserving its dominant position as a religious institution in Serbian society, which the process of democratization and religious pluralism that democratization bears with itself puts into question.These two things, Radić says, were the reason for the convergence between the Serbian national elites and the church leadership at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s. The Church supported the national project, considering it an integral part of its existence and necessary to preserve its position as a key religious factor while ruling structures needed the church as a powerful source of their own legitimacy. “Religion was seen as a fresh spiritual and emotional compensation for the breakdown of the social and value systems,” Radić claims, “as well as a repository of cultural arguments, collective memory and symbolic power needed to build new national, group and individual identities.” The rapprochement between church and state was seen as a return to the tradition of the symphony and an overture to the universal clericalization of society. What happened in Serbian Orthodoxy during the 1990s, however, was the emergence of extremely close ties between Serbian ethnonationalist representatives and the top of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

This led to the rapprochement of ethnototalitarian ideology and ethnoclerical aspirations, the hybridization of which gives birth to the phenomenon of ethnoreligiosity.59 Ethnototalitarianism is an ideology and doctrine, says Dejan Jović, which aims to create an ethnically pure and absolutely sovereign state, treating the ethnic community as a homogeneous community, implying it as a single political entity regardless of any state borders that may divide it.60 According to Vjekoslav Perica, ethnoclericalism is a Balkan contribution to contemporary religious fundamentalism, based on the idea of a nation constructed on an ethnic aspect, and of the concept of a church whose clergy constitute one group of leaders of that ethnonational community.61

Also, ethnoreligiosity should not be confused with ethnophyletism because although they share some similarities, they are two different phenomena. Ethnophyletism puts the idea of people (Volk) or nation above the idea of faith, thereby harnessing the church in the service of that people (Volk) or nation, while the ethnoreligiosity does this in a far more political way, not only by putting the idea of people (Volk) or nation over the idea of faith but by emphasizing the specific ethnonationalistic thought as the basis of a religious concept that the church needs to follow.62 More specifically, in this case it is not about putting the idea of Serbianism ahead of the idea of Orthodoxy but about viewing the Chetnik ethnototalitarian pattern as a prefix to Orthodox religious discourse. Namely, for ethnoreligiosity, it is not enough to be a member of a certain people but one must be that people in an ideologically right, ethnototalitarian way.63 Ultimately, religion is shaped in this way through a sacralized ethnototalitarian concept that separates people in two ways: through the ethnonationalistic key of traitors and Orthodox and through the religious key of the faithful and apostates.64 Combining these two criteria yields the spiritual space of the nation par excellence, whose logic, according to Čolović, requires the erasure of others within the national space, whether this erasure is done through absolute homogenization within their own ethnic ranks or through the complete destruction of the historical and cultural heritage of other ethnic groups.65 Through the policies of ethnic cleansing, this led to the creation of what Viktor Ivančić calls a culture of killing within which the destruction of others became a central creative act because liquidation shows itself as the only creation.66 Consequently, this led to the glorification of one’s own crimes and the contempt for the victims of others, the logical consequence of which is the emergence of historical revisionism and self-victimology. Because it enables the forgery of facts, revisionism eliminates the desire, courage and humanity to deal with their own crimes and all responsibility for them. Self-victimology serves to justify crimes by one’s own ethnic group with the crimes of another ethnic group against the members of one’s own people, the side effect of which is the development of the ideology of the memory of evil.

In all this, the Church plays a major role in the territory of the former Yugoslavia because, according to Mardešić, the political elites in Yugoslavia could never cause conflicts of such a bloody nature and on such a scale without the religious aspect.67 Therefore, taking this into account, I would twist Bigović’s aforementioned thesis about certain members of church structures and theologians who have strayed from the official stance of the institution of the Serbian Orthodox Church on the topic of Orthodoxy and democracy and say that the aberration from the nature of Orthodoxy and the denial of democratic achievements was more a rule and not an exception in the attitude of the Serbian Orthodox Church. That has been demonstrated for decades by the behaviour of part of its clergy who politicize the Gospel on ethnonationalist grounds without considering larger or even any sanctions at all by Church authorities. Accordingly, we can see how this church understands democracy in an ethnototalitarian sense, while Orthodoxy within that ethnototalitarian agenda is experienced almost exclusively through the pattern of the ethnoclerical concept. This is followed by the idea that the Serbian state coincides ideally with the borders of Serbian Orthodoxy, notwithstanding all the perniciousness caused by such ideological aspirations. As a consequence, we can conclude that Orthodoxy and democracy in contemporary Serbian theology and thought are, in essence, unquestionably burdened with ethnoreligiosity, which is an issue to which the Serbian Orthodox Church must urgently find an answer, if it is to be prevented from collapsing entirely under it in the future.


John Binns, An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 188.


Binns, An Introduction, 188.


Christopher Marsh, “The Ambivalent Role of Orthodoxy in the Construction of Civil Society and Democracy in Russia,” in Burden or Blessing? Russian Orthodoxy and the Construction of Civil Society and Democracy, ed. Christopher Marsh (Boston: Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, 2004), 1–2.


Binns, An Introduction, 166, 188; Aristotle Papanikolaou, The Mystical as Political: Democracy and Non-Radical Orthodoxy (Notre Dame IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), 57–63; Aristotle Papanikolaou, “Byzantium, Orthodoxy, and Democracy,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71, no. 1 (2003): 75–98.


See Pantelis Kalaitzidis, “Church and State in the Orthodox World: From the Byzantine ‘Symphonia’ and Nationalized Orthodoxy, to the Need of Witnessing the Word of God in a Pluralistic Society,” in Religioni, Libertà, Potere: Atti del Convegno Internazionale Filosofico-Teologico Sulla Libertà Religiosa, ed. Emanuela Fogliadini (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 2014), 68.


See Papanikolaou, Mystical, 55–87; Papanikolaou, “Byzantium, Orthodoxy, and Democracy.”


James H. Billington, “Orthodoxy and Democracy,” Journal of Church and State 49, no. 1 (2007): 19–26; Papanikolaou, Mystical, 163–200; C. Marsh, ed., Burden or Blessing? (Boston: Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, 2004).


Papanikolaou, Mystical, 80.


Papanikolaou, Mystical, 6–7.


Papanikolaou, Mystical, 47.


Papanikolaou, Mystical, 46–50.


Ivo Žanić, “Simbolični identitet Hrvatske u trokutu: raskrižje-predziđe-most” [Symbolic Identity of Croatia in the Triangle: Crossroad-Bulwark-Bridge], in Historijski mitovi na Balkanu [Historical Myths in the Balkans], ed. Husnija Kamberović (Sarajevo: Institut za istoriju, 2003), 196.


For more on this, see Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007); Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Philosophy 14, no. 1 (2006): 1–25; cf. Branko Sekulić and Zoran Grozdanov, “Geknebelte Universalität: Die Herausforderung der Ethnoreligiosität für das Christentum im ehemaligen Jugoslawien,” Münchener Theologische Zeitschrift 68, no. 2 (2017): 146–54.


See Jürgen Habermas, “Die Dialektik der Säkularisierung,” Eurozine – Gesellschaft zur Vernetzung von Kulturmedien, 2008,” http://www.eurozine.com/die-dialektik-der-sakularisierung/ (accessed 21 September 2020).


Habermas, “Die Dialektik.”


Habermas, “Die Dialektik.”


See Željko Mardešić, Rascjep u svetom [The Rift in the Sacredness] (Zagreb: Kršćanska sadašnjost, 2007), 758–9; Jakov Jukić, Lica i maske svetoga [Faces and Masks of the Holy] (Zagreb: Kršćanska sadašnjost, 1997), 425.


For example, see “Map of War Victims in the Former SFRJ 1991 – 2001,” Humanitarian Law Centre, Documenta – Centre for dealing with the past Humanitarian Law Centre Prishtina, accessed 21 September 2020, http://zrtveratovasfrj.info/site/home/en-US; Kirsten Young, “UNHCR and ICRC in the former Yugoslavia: Bosnia-Herzegovina,” International Review of the Red Cross 83, no. 843 (September, 2001): 783–4.


See Jukić, Lica i Maske, 290–1; Željko Mardešić, Svjedočanstva o mirotvorstvu [Peacekeeping Testimonies] (Zagreb: Kršćanska sadašnjost, 2002), 93.


See Radovan Bigović, The Orthodox Church in the 21st Century (Belgrade: Foundation Konrad Adenauer-Christian Cultural Center, 2013), 41–2.; Vjekoslav Perica, Balkan Idols (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 216–7; Treaties between the Republic of Croatia and the Holy See include four international agreements between the Holy See and the Republic of Croatia, 1. Cooperation in areas of upbringing and culture, 24 January 1997; 2. Care of the spiritual needs of Catholic believers and members of the armed and police forces, 24 January 1997; 3. Legal matters 9 February 1997; 4. Economic matters, 4 December 1998; Cf. Branko Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia: The Veils of Christian Delusion (Lanham MD: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic, 2022), 193–4.


See Dejan Jović, Rat i mit [War and Myth] (Zagreb: Fraktura, 2017), 309.


Jović, Rat i mit, 298–9.


Perica, Balkan, 214–5.


Perica, Balkan, 215.


For more about this see Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia.


For what is discussed in this paragraph, see Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 1–2.


See Bigović, Orthodox Church, 47–56.


Bigović, Orthodox Church, 60, 108–9.


For what is discussed in this paragraph and the quote, see Bigović, Orthodox Church, 60.


Bigović, Orthodox Church, 49–50.


Bigović, Orthodox Church, 49–50.


For what is discussed in this paragraph and the quote, see Bigović, Orthodox Church, 49–50.


See Srđan Barišić, “Serbian Orthodox Church and Yugoslavia,” YU Historija, 2017, http://www.yuhistorija.com/culture_religion_txt01c2.html, accessed 24 December 2019.


See Bigović, Orthodox Church, 49.


Bigović, Orthodox Church, 47.


For what is stated in this paragraph, see Bigović, Orthodox Church, 47–50.


See Tonči Kuzmanić, “Raspad SFR Jugoslavije i nasljedstvo: Narodnjaštvo, a ne nacionalizam” [Disintegration of the SFR Yugoslavia and Its Legacy: Populism, Not Nationalism], in Nasilno rasturanje Jugoslavije [The Violent Disintegration of Yugoslavia], ed. Miroslav Hadžić (Beograd: Centar za civilno-vojne odnose, 2004), 85.


See Ivan Čolović, The Balkans: The Terror of Culture (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2011), 59–66.


For what is stated in this paragraph, see Čolović, The Balkans, 59.


Čolović, The Balkans, 60–1.


See Čolović, The Balkans, 60.


Čolović, Smrt na Kosovu polju [Death on Kosovo Plain] (Beograd: Biblioteka XX. vek, 2016), 384; Perica, Balkan, 128; cf. Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 151.


See Vjekoslav Perica, “Nacije i dijaspore: mit o sakralnom centru i vječnom povratku” [Nation and Diaspora: The Myth of the Sacred Centre and the Eternal Return], in Mitovi nacionalizma i demokratija [Myths of Nationalism and Democracy], ed. Darko Gavrilović, Ljubiša Despotović, Vjekoslav Perica and Srđan Šljukić (Novi Sad: Centar za istoriju, demokratiju i pomirenje, 2009), 95–6.


See Čolović, Smrt na Kosovu, 384–5.; Perica, Balkan, 143–4; cf. Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 151–52.


See Jozo Tomasevich, War and Revolution in Yugoslavia, 1941–1945 (Standford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), 741–3; Radmila Radić, “Srpska pravoslavna crkva tokom 90-ih [Serbian Orthodox Church in the 1990s],” Poznańskie Studia Slawistyczne, no. 10 (2016): 260; cf. Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 129.


Čolović, Smrt na Kosovu, 385, 389; cf. Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 152–3.


See Barišić, “Serbian Orthodox Church”; Radić, “Srpska pravoslavna crkva,” 262.


See what Dragan Bursać has said on this according to Čolović, Smrt na Kosovu, 386; Radić, “Srpska pravoslavna crkva,” 261–2; Perica, Balkan, 142; Srđan Vrcan, Nacija, nacionalizam, moderna država [Nation, Nationalism and Modern State] (Zagreb: Golden Marketing-Tehnička knjiga, 2006), 204; Medina Šehić and Suzana Šačić, Balkan bluz [Balkan Blues] (Sarajevo: Vlastita naklada, 2007), 99–103.


See Barišić, “Serbian Orthodox Church”; Radmila Radić, Država i verske zajednice: 19451970. [The State and Religious Communities 19451970] (Belgrade: Institut za noviju istoriju Srbije, 2002), 331.


Barišić, “Serbian Orthodox Church”; Radić, “Srpska pravoslavna crkva,” 261; Šehić and Šačić, Balkan bluz, 99–103.; Ilija T. Radaković, “Vjerska buđenja ili vjerski ratovi,” [Religious awakenings or religious wars] chap. V in Besmislena YU-ratovanja 1991–1995 [Meaningless YU warfare 1991–1995] (Belgrade: Društvo za istinu o antifašističkoj narodnooslobodilačkoj borbi u Jugoslaviji 1941–1945, 2003), http://www.znaci.net/00001/23.htm (accessed 27 December 2019).


Perica, Balkan, 158–61.


Čolović, The Balkans, 60–2.


See Barišić, “Serbian Orthodox Church”; Radić, “Srpska pravoslavna crkva,” 261–3; Radaković, “Vjerska buđenja ili vjerski ratovi.”


Čolović, The Balkans, 60.


Čolović, The Balkans, 60; Čolović, Smrt na Kosovu, 42, 49–50.


See Nikolaj Velimirović, Sabrana dela V [Collected works, vol. V] (Šabac: Manastir Sv. Nikolaja, 2016), 678–9; cf. Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 107.


Čolović, The Balkans, 61.


For the comments in this paragraph, see Radić, “Srpska pravoslavna crkva,” 260.


Cf. Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 189–190.


See Kuzmanić, “Raspad SFR Jugoslavije i nasljedstvo,” 283–323.


See Perica, Balkan, 215.


Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 1–2, 229–230.


Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 277–278.


Sekulić, Ethnoreligiosity in the Contemporary Societies of the Former Yugoslavia, 288.


See Čolović, The Balkans, 61–5.


See Viktor Ivančić, Hrvoje Polan and Nemanja Stjepanović, Killing Culture (Belgrade: Forum Ziviler Friedensdienst, 2019), 19.


See Jukić, Lica i maske, 291; Mardešić, Svjedočanstva, 93.

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