Bulletin N°35

janvier 2022

The European Union, Orthodox Churches and the Refugee Crisis – English version

Lucian N. Leustean

In November 2021, thousands of refugees and asylum seekers became trapped on the Belarusian-Polish border. They had only one aim: to cross the border into the European Union (EU). Illegal crossings are not unusual, however, the events unfolding on this border combined a powerful mixture of emotion, religion and geopolitics. The drama of refugees who arrived from the Middle East, some of whom died in the woods near the border, stood in contrast to the standoff between European authorities and the Belarusian political regime, in particular, the latter’s lack of political legitimacy.

The refugees’ arrival was a reminder of similar scenes, only a few years before, in Southeastern Europe. At its peak in 2015, hundreds of thousands crossed the Aegean Sea and headed to the European Union. On their way to the West, as in Belarus, refugees faced the predominant religious and cultural backgrounds of the countries they encountered. Belarus, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia are all predominantly Eastern Orthodox Christian countries in which religion plays an important role in shaping national identity and state-building processes. Social narratives and the image of the ‘other’ have been constant features since the development of modern states. As a general pattern, across the region, refugees have been regarded by Orthodox churches as belonging to another religion (Islam) which could destabilize the status quo and religious fabric of their societies. Their arrival was cautiously accepted only as long as people did not intend to remain and instead continue their journeys towards Western and Northern Europe.

In which ways have Orthodox churches, as institutional structures, been involved with the experiences of refugees? In which ways have Orthodox representations in Brussels engaged with European officials in tackling the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’? To what extent are discourses on migration and forced displacement linked to geopolitical narratives of power and religion-state relations in the Eastern Orthodox world? These three questions are interlinked and will be explored in this article.

Orthodox responses to the refugee crisis

The data provided by international organisations on world displacement is startling. In 2015, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared that ‘One in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum’.[1] By 2020, forced displacement had reached over 80 million people across the world.[2] More importantly, forced displacement is not a smooth process of populations simply moving from one place to another. As Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al indicated, ‘two-thirds of refugees and displaced persons continue to wait in exile for over five years, in some cases for generations, with no solutions in sight […]’.[3]

With the support of two British Academy projects, between 2018 and 2020, I conducted seventy interviews with refugees, state officials and religious organisations in six countries, namely Armenia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia and Ukraine.[4] In June 2018, I was able to conduct interviews at the Principovac Reception Centre, located only a few hundred meters from the Serbian-Croatian border. The findings of my interviews in Serbia bore an uncanny similarity with those conducted by many journalists with refugees in Belarus a few years later[5]. In one case, an Afghan family, composed of a father, mother and daughter, mentioned that they lived in the Reception Centre for the last two years. The family attempted to cross the border illegally a few times, however, only a second daughter and her children were able to do so and were now in Germany. The family refused to return to Afghanistan and hoped that one day they would be able to continue their journey and be together in Germany. In another case, an Iranian man in his twenties mentioned that he recently graduated with an undergraduate degree from Tehran University. After felling out with his family, he intended to find a better life in the EU. He travelled to Serbia on a tourist visa, stayed a few nights in a hotel in Belgrade, and tried unsuccessfully to cross the border. He faced violence from border officials and remained resolute that reaching the West was the only solution. He claimed that he was an atheist and he would face persecution on his return to Iran.

These two cases are examples of personal dramas when refugees are faced with closed borders and uncertainty over the most appropriate course of action. Continuing their journey or returning to their home countries are not always the only options. What stood out in my visit to the Principovac Reception Centre was the degree of cooperation between the Orthodox and Catholic communities. It became obvious that religious communities were acting as human security providers for populations in need. From jointly providing a small financial incentive, which helped people in the camp to buy local necessities, to seeing regularly a familiar face with whom they could share their story, Orthodox and Catholic communities stepped into areas where state authorities were unable or unwilling to do so.

The increasing number of refugees in Serbia related not only to the war in the Middle East, but also, rather unusually, the country’s sudden shift in tourist visa liberalization with Iran in August 2017. In my discussion with an interviewee in Belgrade, I was told that the visa liberalisation policy was unexpected and presented in mass media as a gesture of gratitude to Iran for not recognizing Kosovo’s independence. The interviewee pointed out that the decision was conspicuously linked to Serbian authorities travelling to Moscow, and, in the interviewee’s view, most likely had wider geopolitical overtones which related to close relations between Serbia and Russia at the expense of tense relations between Russia and the EU. In October 2018, after 7,000 Iranians arrived in Serbia as tourists, many of whom failed to return home and began living in Refugee Centres, due to pressure from the EU, visa liberalization with Iran was cancelled.[6]

Notwithstanding the political rationale for welcoming Iranians on tourist visas to Serbia in 2017 and 2018, the refugee crisis was regarded by the interviewees I spoke to as an ideological clash between the values of the European Union and the traditionalism advanced by local Orthodox communities. That this was the case was exemplified, in September 2015, by the unprecedented gesture of the Holy Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to issue an official document which condemned its own government and the European Union’s policy on migration and asylum and demanded that the authorities reject any further intake of Syrian refugees. The document stated that ‘This crowding has turned nearly into [a] true invasion’[7] thus removing the personal drama faced by each individual. The Bulgarian Church stood out in Southeastern Europe as the one which lacked coordinated humanitarian programmes to support the refugees. Its stance was evident when, in May 2019, Pope Francis travelled to Sofia and met Orthodox hierarchs appealing the leadership and the faithful to engage with people in need. A photograph of Pope Francis praying alone in St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral made headlines around the world summarising the divergent ways in which Catholics and Orthodox responded to the humanitarian crisis.[8]

Not all Orthodox churches fit easily between the Serbian and Bulgarian models. Institutionally, Orthodox churches have either welcomed, condemned or abstained from engaging with refugees. However, it should be noted that, in many cases institutional structures have been surpassed by the humanitarian mobilisation of ordinary Orthodox believers, who acted in the name of humanity rather than following religious affiliation. In Bulgaria, volunteers have worked with Caritas aid organisation and many civil society bodies in providing support to refugees rather than through a national network of organised support from Orthodox parishes. Other organisations expanded their existing programmes and adapted them to the new challenges. For example, in 2012, the Orthodox Church of Greece set up an Integration Centre for Migrant Workers – Ecumenical Refugee Programme, one year after the start of the Syrian civil war. The Centre has developed from a humanitarian organisation set up by the Church in 1978 aimed at reintegrating migrant workers who returned from Germany to Greece. The programme  has been financially supported by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece, the European Refugee Fund and the UNHCR, and provided direct material support to refugees on the Greek islands. In 2020, the programme operated six shelters for unaccompanied minors which had 240 children between the age of 6 and 17 who were living alone.[9] However, while Greece’s institutionalised support has provided tangible results, it has also faced its own challenges particularly in relation to removing misconception and misrepresentation of the ‘other’. The most recent example was that faced by Little Amal, a 3.5-meter-tall puppet representing refugees which travelled across Europe from Turkey to Britain in 2021. In Larisa, Greece, she was pelted with stones by far-right groups and the organisers avoided a route near Orthodox monasteries, fearing that traditional Orthodoxism will only increase tensions.[10]

Orthodox representations and European institutions in Brussels

In March 2010, five Orthodox churches with offices in Brussels set up ‘the Committee of Representatives of Orthodox Churches to the European Union’ (CROCEU). In 2020, the Committee numbered six churches: the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church, the Romanian Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Church of Cyprus and the Orthodox Church of Greece. From the start, the establishment of a Committee representing the Orthodox faithful, separately from other Christian representation groups in Brussels, was perceived by their counterparts with caution. Until 2010, Orthodox churches were, and many still remain, part of a wider ecumenical umbrella organization, the Conference of European Churches which has a long history of religious engagement with European institutions. The Committee, which meets regularly, sees itself as a product of the implementation of Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union as amended by the 2009 Lisbon Treaty which encouraged an ‘open, transparent and regular dialogue’ between European institutions and religious organisations.

An overview of the CROCEU meetings shows that the topics of migration and the refugee crisis have largely remained outside its agendas. The lack of a coordinated Orthodox mobilization towards the refugee crisis denotes the impact of national religion-state relations on ‘business as usual’ in Brussels. This comes in contrast to two recent documents issued in 2016 and 2020. The majority of Orthodox representations in Brussels (except Russia) refer to the ‘Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church’ which was approved by ten churches in Crete in 2016. The Encyclical advances a powerful message which encouragesthat ‘We call on the civil authorities, the Orthodox faithful and the other citizens of the countries in which they have sought refuge and continue to seek refuge to accord them every possible assistance, even from out of their own insufficiency’.[11] The Ecumenical Patriarchate went even further and endorsed the publication of the first reflection on Orthodox responses towards refugees and displaced populations around the world (For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, 2020) by providing specific examples of social and political mistreatment which form ‘offenses against the Holy Spirit’.[12]

The CROCEU’s limited engagement with the refugee crisis has been evident in the number of statements emerging from meetings with high-ranking officials. In July 2018, representatives from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church and the Orthodox Church of Cyprus met the Austrian Federal Minister for Europe and discussed the Austrian EU Council Presidency. A summary of the meeting stated that ‘CROCEU expressed its concern on refugees and migration policies and reaffirmed the importance of developing more humane policies, that will promote the values of Europe’. The emphasis on ‘concern’ and ‘values of Europe’ remained vague and emerged from two other meetings too.[13] In October 2018, at the ‘annual high level meeting of religious leaders with the European Commission’, organized as part of the Article 17 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)framework, Μetropolitan of Achaias, Athanasios (Chatzopoulos), Director of the Representation of the Orthodox Church of Greece to the European Union, proposed that a major Congress should be organized in each EU member state on ‘Common European Values and Traditions in Europe’. He proposed that the first Congress could take place in Athens to discuss the ways in which churches and state could condemn ‘fundamentalism, nationalism and any discourse of hate’ and ‘[the] fear provoked by the influx of immigrants’.[14] In 2019, CROCEU co-organised a seminar titled ‘The next day in Syria: A path towards the resilience of Syrian people’ together with the Conference of European Churches, the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union and the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. The press release highlighted the remarks made by one of the participants that the international community should focus on the ‘the rebuilding of Syria and return of the Syrian refugees to their country’, however, acknowledged that the return of people back to their home country was unrealistic. While the final message emphasised the areas of concern such as ‘education, healthcare, psychological-social and spiritual support, humanitarian aid’[15], the discussion in Brussels seemed to have little impact at the grassroots level. Overall, the meetings between Orthodox and EU officials are a way of conveying messages and sharing experience from the national level of religion-state relations rather than leading to a coordinated Orthodox response to the refugee crisis. There is a discrepancy between what the churches are supposed to do according to the 2016 Encyclical and what they are actually prepared to do. The higher-level meetings are in place, however, the ideals and the implementation are resisted by those at other levels.

Displacement and Geopolitics in an enlarged Europe

As representative of a lived religion and as institutional structures, Orthodox churches have both supported populations in need and condemned the arrival of refugees in their communities. States have been ultimately the arbiters of the ways in which the refugees have either been accepted or hustled into buses and taken to the nearby border. Refugees have been trapped not only in Reception Centres in Southeastern Europe or the Belarusian-Polish border, but more importantly by geopolitical narratives which advance religious prejudices. The politicization of religion in relation to the refugee crisis has been a feature of populism and right-wing mobilisation across Europe.

The Orthodox response to the arrival of refugees is not just about local countries but more widely about the dynamic shape of inter-religious relations in the Eastern Christian world. A key factor in this regard is the decision of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate to cease official relations in 2018, due to the autocephaly (independence) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The autocephaly which is recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and a small number of other Orthodox churches, continues to remain a disputed topic.[16] The narratives of the ‘other’ relating to displaced populations has not only a political undertone but also a religious one. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, churches position themselves between Kyiv’s and Moscow’s visions of religious displacement. In between these two narratives, other Orthodox churches face the same dilemma: Will their support for refugees and displaced populations be regarded as a gesture supporting the Russian Orthodox Church or the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Religious responses to the refugee crisis are thus integral to soft power discourses. This is particularly poignant due to the unclear ecclesiastical boundaries between Orthodox churches in diaspora and due to the emergence of other possible autocephaly movements, such as the Macedonian and Montenegrin Orthodox Churches.

Orthodox churches are deeply embedded in the social fabric of Southeastern European societies. One of the key findings of the interviews that I conducted with refugees in six countries in Southeastern Europe was the limited amount of coordinated activities conducted by religious communities with refugees, and when they did so, as in Serbia, the interfaith programmes took place on ad hoc basis. The Orthodox, Catholics and Protestant communities had their own humanitarian programmes. These programmes were largely at the national level with little to no communication across faiths and state borders. A top-down approach should involve inter-faith communication followed by concrete gestures at region, national and international levels to remove the politicization of religion and instead focus on the inclusion of refugees.




[1] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Worldwide displacement hits all-time high as war and persecution increase’, 18 June 2015, https://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2015/6/558193896/worldwide-displacement-hits-all-time-high-war-persecution-increase.html .

[2] The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ‘Forced displacement passes 80 million by mid-2020 as COVID-19 tests refugee protection globally’, 9 December 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/uk/news/press/2020/12/5fcf94a04/forced-displacement-passes-80-million-mid-2020-covid-19-tests-refugee-protection.html .

[3] Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, Nando Sigona, ‘Introduction and Forced Migration Studies in Transition’ in Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long, Nando Sigona, The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 4. See also, Ulrich Schmiedel and Graeme Smith (eds.), Religion in the European Refugee Crisis, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2018; and Laura Zanfrini (ed.), Migrants and Religion: Paths, Issues, and Lenses. A Multi-disciplinary and Multi-sited Study on the Role of Religious Belongings in Migratory and Integration Processes, Leiden: Brill, 2020.

[4] For comparative analysis of various countries see: Victoria Hudson and Lucian N. Leustean (ed.), Religion and Forced Displacement in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2022; and Lucian N. Leustean (ed.), Religion and Forced Displacement in the Eastern Orthodox World, London: Foreign Policy Centre, 2020 at https://fpc.org.uk/publications/religion-and-forced-displacement-in-the-eastern-orthodox-world/    .

[5] BBC News, ‘Belarus border crisis: How are migrants getting there?’, 26 November 2021, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/59233244 ; Laure Stephan, Jakub Iwaniuk and Madjid Zerrouky, ‘La Biélorussie orchestre l’arrivée de migrants par charters pour faire pression sur l’Europe’, Le Monde, 10 novembre 2021, https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2021/11/10/comment-la-bielorussie-fait-venir-des-charters-de-migrants-pour-mettre-la-pression-sur-l-union-europeenne_6101625_3210.html

[6] ‘EU forces Serbia to return visa regime for Iranian passport holders’, 11 October 2018, https://www.schengenvisainfo.com/news/eu-forces-serbia-to-return-visa-regime-for-iranian-passport-holders/

[7] Daniela Kalkandjieva, ‘The Bulgarian Orthodox Church and the Refugee Crisis’ in Lucian N. Leustean (ed.), Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World, London: Routledge, 2019, pp. 229-250.

[8] ‘Pope Francis asks Bulgarians to ‘open hearts’ to migrants’, 6 May 2019, https://www.euractiv.com/section/languages-culture/news/pope-francis-asks-bulgarians-to-open-hearts-to-migrants/ .

[9] ‘Synyparxis - Ecumenical Refugee Programme’, https://www.kspm-erp.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/SYNYPARXIS_Brochure_%ce%a4%ce%b5%ce%bb%ce%b9%ce%ba%cf%8c.pdf .

[10] Amelia Gentleman, ‘People felt threatened even by a puppet refugee’: Little Amal’s epic walk through love and fear, The Guardian, 18 October 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2021/oct/18/threatened-puppet-refugee-little-amals-epic-walk .

[11] Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, 2016, https://www.holycouncil.org/-/encyclical-holy-council .

[12] The document, titled For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, March 2020, gives the following examples, with a particular reference to the US: ‘abducting children from their parents, shattering families, tormenting parents and children alike, interning all of them indefinitely, denying due process to asylum-seekers, slandering and lying about those seeking refuge, deploying the military at southern borders to terrify and threaten unarmed migrants, employing racist and nativist rhetoric against asylum-seekers for the sake of political advantage, and so forth. All such actions are assaults upon the image of God in those who seek our mercy. They are offenses against the Holy Spirit. In the name of Christ, the Orthodox Church denounces these practices, and implores those who are guilty of them to repent and to seek instead to become servants of justice and charity’. The document is available at https://www.goarch.org/social-ethos .

[13] Gheorghe Anghel, ‘CROCEU meeting with the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the E.U.’, 20 July 2018, https://basilica.ro/en/croceu-meeting-with-the-austrian-presidency-of-the-council-of-the-e-u/ .

[14] ‘Annual High Level Meeting of Religious Leaders in the European Commission’, 10 October 2018, http://www.regue.eu/en/news/240-2018/660-annual-high-level-meeting-of-religious-leaders-in-the-european-commission .

[15] ‘A path towards the resilience of Syrian people’, Press Release No: 19/07, 5 April 2019, https://www.ceceurope.org/a-path-towards-the-resilience-of-syrian-people/ .

[16] Alain Dieckhoff and Philippe Portier (eds.), Special Issue on ‘Autocéphalie et nationalisme’, Observatoire international du religieux (bulletin no. 27), Paris: Centre de recherches internationales, March 2019, https://www.sciencespo.fr/ceri/oir/bulletin02e7.html?27 .

Pour citer ce document :
Lucian N. Leustean, "The European Union, Orthodox Churches and the Refugee Crisis – English version". Bulletin de l'Observatoire international du religieux N°35 [en ligne], janvier 2022. https://obsreligion.cnrs.fr/bulletin/the-european-union-orthodox-churches-and-the-refugee-crisis-english-version/
Numéro : 35
janvier 2022

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Lucian N. Leustean, Aston University, Birmingham, United Kingdom

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