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Research Program

Research Program Institute of Eastern Christian Studies

Eastern Christianity’s Global Heritage – Traditions in Transition
MvdB, 17/3/16

Building upon the plans set out in last year’s policy document (Nov. 2015), IECS organizes its research in a program entitled Eastern Christianity’s global heritage – traditions in transition. The program focuses on the rich heritage of Eastern Christianity, how this has been shared and preserved in the past, and how it is transformed and transposed in the often violent present. This heritage includes its portable texts and images, its architecture, and its (ethno-)religious practices, in its regions of origin as well as in the countries of diaspora.

In many places where Eastern Christianity finds itself, its religious and societal life is threatened by societal discrimination or even by violent conflict. In other places, Eastern Christian populations constitute a comfortable majority, but their countries are involved in internal and external violent conflicts. Whether part of the majority, like in Eritrea, Ethiopia, several countries of South and East Central Europe, and in Russia, or as a minority, such as in most Middle Eastern countries and in India, today’s political context deeply affects the ways in which the Eastern Christian heritage is being preserved, transmitted and transformed. This is even more the case when conflicts cause the actual destruction of material heritage and the flight and diaspora of the people.

In the coming years, the main focus of IECS will be on topics that are at the intersection of the study of its rich heritage as such and the effects of the often violent contemporary situation on the preservation of this heritage. Important questions include: what is taken along and what is left behind when Christians move away, what is preserved, rebuilt and appreciated in the countries of origin, how does this heritage change in countries of refuge, and how can a global community (consisting of members of these churches but also of others) find ways to preserve this heritage, not only for the sake of the church communities, but as part of a global heritage of literature, art, architecture and religious practices that may continue to inspire community members as much as those outside it.

In-depth study of these churches’ heritage needs a contextual analysis of the way these churches live in and interact with today’s global socio-political context. These include the study of the complex interactions between various political blocs and between various levels of societal participation and of the ways in which majorities and minorities are created and re-created. In all of this, Eastern Christianity is part of ideological and rhetorical battles that are mostly fought with religious arguments, within Christianity and between Christianity and other religions, most prominently so Islam. Taking due notice of these global and transnational religio-political dynamics is crucial in understanding the position of Eastern Christians, now and in the future.

In addition to the research projects undertaken by IECS researchers, the institute aims to stimulate the active interaction of the international community of researchers that are interested in the history, heritage and current situation of Eastern Christians. It does that via scholarship programs for visiting junior and senior scholars, by organizing academic conferences, and by organizing various activities to share this knowledge with a wider public in the Netherlands and Europe as much as in the home countries of the churches involved.

Within this wider field, a number of concrete projects have been started or will be started in the near future.

  1. Middle Eastern Christianity in Crisis

The Christianity of the Middle East is experiencing one of the most damaging crises in the modern period. The ongoing wars in Syria and Iraq have greatly exacerbated an already fragile situation of societal marginalization, by the insecurities and violence of war in general, and by the wholesale expulsion of Christians in the areas overrun by ISIS or related groups. In addition to the loss of lives, livelihoods and communal life, this also caused the destruction of churches, schools, monasteries and libraries. While Christianity is still very much present and alive in many other places in the Middle East, especially in Egypt and Lebanon (which also hosts many of those who fled Syria and Iraq), but also in North-Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Jordan and Iran. In Turkey, Christianity was relatively safe over the last decades. However, the flare-up of the struggle between the Turkish government and the PKK, against the background of the border skirmishes with ISIS and the Syrian government, threatens not only the very small Christian communities in the eastern provinces, but also minority rights more generally.

The aims of this project are threefold. First, it intends to further research into causes and effects of the current Middle Eastern crisis for Christians, and what this means for the preservation of Christianity’s heritage in this region. Second, it aims to raise awareness of the rich material, textual and visual heritage of Christianity in the Middle East, and thus to contribute to its preservation and transmission under adverse circumstances, in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Thirdly, the project seeks to advice those who are directly involved in the support of Christians in the countries of origin or of asylum, and who are involved in preserving and restoring Christianity’s heritage in the Middle East.

In order to reach these goals, the program will

  • organize international academic conferences, bringing together experts in the field, encourage publications on this topic and expand IECS’ international network;
  • organize seminars and public lectures, geared at a professional public in Europe, to enable them to enhance the quality of humanitarian (relief) work and the transmittal of the Middle Eastern churches’ heritage;
  • contribute to and organize seminars in the Middle East, bringing together junior and senior local academics and professionals, with international experts in specific fields; topics include the preservation and restauration of religious heritage (religious buildings, icons, etc.), raising historical awareness of the region’s Christian history, etc.;
  • publicize the results of research regularly, via scholarly journals and conferences, via the Institute’s new series IECS Reports, and via general magazines and social media.
  • support and supervise PhD’s in this field.

  1. Eastern Europe/Russia in transition

Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe during the last decades had to cope with several major societal changes. The fall of the iron curtain in many countries meant the end of an atheist and dictatorial regime, and was therefore welcomed and celebrated as a liberation from further restrictions and discrimination. Yet the transition period that was to follow the downfall of Communism also opened a period of transition towards a modernity that was shaped by secular states, societal pluralism and – last not least – free market economy with all its sometimes irritating implications. Many Orthodox communities in Eastern Europe after decades of illegality and suppression not only proved badly prepared to meet the new challenges. State atheism had often produced modes of survival which appeared ambiguous under new conditions, and generated conflicts between hierarchs and laymen, or between opposing factions within a community. Furthermore, state atheism often had only frozen, but in no way helped to dissolve older antagonisms and rivalries, which in the early 1990s quickly reentered the scene, as in former Yugoslavia, in Macedonia, but also in Romania and Moldova or between Russia and Ukraine – to name but some.

Several projects run at IECS during recent years have tried to explore the manifold reactions of Orthodox Churches in the European East to the new conditions, and to trace the roots of current conflicts. Many of existing contacts and publications have their origin in a project called “Old Borders – New Frontiers: Orthodox Christianity and the European Integration” (financed by German Volkswagen Stiftung) that was coordinated at IECS in 2008-2011 and gathered experts with various disciplinary backgrounds from the Netherlands, Germany, Russia and Romania. As one among the continuations of this cooperation IECS delivered a major contribution to the erection of an endowed chair devoted to “Orthodoxy, Human Rights, Peace Building in Europe”, situated both at VU University/PthU Amsterdam, and at IECS itself. One of the main preoccupations within the framework created by this chair is the study of Orthodox theology in relation to the concept of Human Rights.

Against this background, the crisis in Ukraine since late 2013 and the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in recent years have attracted much attention and study efforts. “Ukrainian studies” with a particular focus belong to the core expertise of IECS. Churches and religious communities in Ukraine before and during the crisis have contributed much to prevent an early escalation. During the further course of events, however, they also could not escape an increasing trend towards polarization along an imagined Russian-Ukrainian borderline. The ambiguity of the current situation, wavering between the need and search for reconciliation, and patriotic enthusiasm is a field that asks for thorough examination. Studies of both theology and ideology – supposing that the interconnectedness of the two is more than superficial and not easy to dissolve – of churches and religious groups active in Ukraine therefore belong, and will belong to IECS´s major activities in the near future. Similar is true for Russia. The role of the Orthodox church in Russian society after the end of the Soviet Union also is more complicated, and more nuanced than often presumed, facing a row of hitherto unknown challenges in relation to state, elite, society.

Current conflicts cannot be understood without sufficient familiarity with both theological traditions and historical and cultural background. Research at IECS gives due credit to this through research devoted to the situation of the church in Communist times (especially the 1960s-1980s), with attention for hierarchs, laymen, dissidents, and their mutual relations. Questions guiding current research concern the situation of theology under Communism, and the adoption of the concept of Human Rights through believers during this period.

Tradition is a notion with long term implications. “The Orthodox always refer to tradition” – this often repeated stereotype made it into a popular textbook about Orthodox theology, liturgy and culture. The 20th century theologian Vladimir Lossky added the important distinction between “tradition and traditions”. Anyway, today’s situation and activities of Orthodox Christianity in its various denominations are objectively rooted in, and subjectively reflected against the background of their particular cultural heritages in a longue durée perspective. Medieval and early modern patterns of religious history in countries like Russia, Romania, Ukraine, and Greece must therefore not be neglected. IECS´s research activities in this context are directed church and state relations in early modern Muscovy, to priests and parish life in Muscovy and Poland-Lithuania between the 16th and 18th century, and to particular personalities like the Kievan metropolitan Peter Mohyla (1596-1646).

Against such background, current activities include

  • organization of international academic conferences, bringing together experts in the field, encourage publications on this topic and expand IECS’ international network;
  • teaching courses on various subjects within the FTR faculty program of Radboud University Nijmegen, on both introductory and advanced level.
  • regular publication of the results of research, via scholarly journals and conferences, via the Institute’s new series IECS Reports, and via general magazines and social media.
  • publication of introductory texts and handbook overviews in various languages for both scholarly and non-scholarly audiences; commenting on current events via newspapers, electronic media, social media.
  • support and supervise PhD’s in this field.