Eastern Orthodox Church

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The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second-largest Christian church communion[1] and traces its historic roots to the Eastern Roman Empire (aka Byzantium). It is one of the Eastern Churches.[note 1] Presently, it has its strongest presence in the former sphere of influence of that empire (mostly in Slavic countries), being dominant in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, and the Greek part of Cyprus.

It should not be confused with the Oriental Orthodox churches, which are the dominant forms of Christianity in Armenia, Egypt, Ethiopia and Eritrea and completely different from most Christianity in theology as Miaphysitism.[2] The Christians in the Levant (Syria, Iraq and Lebanon) are divided more or less equally between Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Catholic groups.

Rites, ceremonies, and theology[edit]

Eastern Orthodoxy recognizes the same seven sacraments as Roman Catholics: baptism, chrismation (called confirmation in the western rites), Eucharist, confession, ordination, marriage, and the anointing of the sick. Baptism is conducted by full immersion, with liberal amounts of water used. The Eucharist is offered with leavened bread. The priest does not go behind a screen to hear confession, but stands with the person confessing, and lays his hands on the person's head. The normal Eucharistic service uses a reading of the liturgy of the antisemitic and homophobic St. John Chrysostom,Wikipedia though St. Basil is also read at special times of the year; unlike the western rites, services are often performed in the local language.[3] In Orthodoxy, humans are seen as icons made in God's likeness, and icons are created in the form of mosaics, frescoes, engravings, paintings, or prints which are frequently displayed on office building walls and in taxis.[4]

Eastern Orthodoxy has very complex/obscurantist views on Salvation. The Last Judgement is handed down only after the Apocalypse; before that, all the deceased just wait. They are not in Purgatory, they are not in Heaven or in Hell. Only after the Last Judgement can they either accept the "God's forgiveness" and go to Heaven or to the "presence of the God" or decline it, and go away from the "presence of the God". The main tenet of Orthodoxy is the Theosis, which means "becoming like an image of God".


Christianity divided in 1054.

Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church evolved out of the united state church of the Roman Empire formally established in 380 CE. At that time "the Pentarchy" - the five Patriarchs in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem - ran the Church. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451 the Patriarch of Alexandria broke away (soon joined by the Armenians, and later by a dissenting group from Antioch), forming independent bodies that would later be called Oriental Orthodox. Both communions maintained separate Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch, and continue till this day in the form of the Coptic Patriarch,[5] Syriac Patriarch[6] (Oriental Orthodox) and the two corresponding Greek Patriarchs[7][8] (Eastern Orthodox).

As the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the course of the 5th century CE, the Western church (led by the Patriarch of Rome, a.k.a. the Pope) drifted away from the Eastern churches in its theology and liturgical traditions, causing a great deal of bickering between the two halves of the church over such issues as the "filioque" addition to the "Symbol of Faith" (i.e. the Nicene Creed), which adds "…and from the Son" to "The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father" (based on a reading of 1 John, which states that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father).[9]

Matters came to a head in 1054. The Eastern patriarchs considered the Pope in Rome to be only primus inter pares (first among equals), but the Pope considered himself to have complete supremacy over them, and he demanded that they accept this. This was received about as well as you would expect, and a series of mutual excommunications between Rome and Constantinople followed, with the Patriarch of Constantinople gaining his current position as the first among equals of the Eastern Orthodox communion.

Because of these mutual excommunications, just as the Catholics believe that the Orthodox broke away, so do the Orthodox churches consider the Catholics to have broken with them.

Around this same time, Greek-led Christianization efforts in Eastern Europe were well underway, with the Cyrillic alphabet evolving expressly for use in writing the Slavic languages. Christianized Slavs and other peoples (such as Romanians) ultimately developed what is known as the Church Slavonic language. As the Grand Duchy of Moscow (the precursor of Russia) emerged (from the 13th century) and the Eastern Roman Empire declined, the Moscow-based Orthodox church became more and more prominent within the communion, with the see of Moscow eventually gaining the status of a patriarchate (1589) at the head of what is now the Russian Orthodox Church. After the final collapse of the (Eastern) Roman Empire in 1453, although the Patriarch was allowed to remain in the newly Muslim Constantinople as head of the Ottoman Empire's Orthodox community, Moscow designated itself as the "Third Rome"Wikipedia (after Rome itself and Constantinople) - the third and final center of "true" Christianity and its associated legitimate imperial power.

The West did not fulfill its promise to the Eastern emperor of troops and support which many viewed as evidence that little had changed since the Teutonic Order's attempts to conquer Orthodox Russia in the mid-13th century, a land grab endorsed by Pope Gregory IX. Few seem to take the possibility of Hanlon's Razor into serious consideration. Although it was known to Constantinople that the Ottomans had the ability to cast medium-sized cannons, whether or not this was information they shared with their recent western allies and whether that may have frightened them away from their prior commitment is unknown.[10] Though Constantinople didn't know the specifics until they were used to siege the city, one cannon designed by the mysterious weapons designer OrbanWikipedia was named "Basilica" and was 27 feet (8.2 m) long, and able to hurl a 600 lb (272 kg) stone ball over a mile (1.6 km).[11] Orban was either a Hungarian or a German who initially tried to sell his services to the Byzantines, but they were unable to secure the funds needed to hire him. He then left Constantinople and approached Mehmed II, claiming that his weapon could blast 'the walls of Babylon itself.[12]


Canonical territories of autocephalous and autonomous Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions with disputed territorie

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Christianity does not have a single universal leader. In theory, it is led by bishops — several of whom, called "patriarchs," possess de facto authority above the others. The Pope of Rome would be first, if he were not a damned heretic; the Ecumenical Patriarch (headquartered in the Phanar / Fener district of Constantinople / Istanbul) is thus by default "first among equals" (though not a few Orthodox deem him to be a heretic as well, thanks to his ecumenical activity and Turkish ties). The others are the patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem (the latter two of which are invariably Greeks, despite the fact that their churches have Arab majorities). To confuse matters, a number of countries (notably Russia) have been granted "autocephaly," and their leaders may also be known as patriarchs (as in Russia). In any case, these churches are bound together as one church through ties of mutual recognition, commemoration, and intercommunion — that is, when they are not brawling[13] or excommunicating one another.

Countries with Orthodox majorities include Russia, Greece, Ukraine, Cyprus, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia, among others. Countries with large immigrant and small native convert populations, such as the USA, Britain, and Australia, are typically home to a number of different Orthodox jurisdictions, thus making hash of the theological requirement that each parish ought to be led by a single bishop, rather than divided according to language or national origin. Negotiations aimed at resolving this impasse have floundered upon the question of which bishops ought to be left standing, and what languages they ought to speak. The territory of Greece is, oddly enough, divided between the Patriarch of Athens and the Ecumenical Patriarch, while for historical reasons, the territory of Japan falls under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Moscow. Not infrequently, churches come to blows over which hierarch ought to have jurisdiction; the modern history of the Ukrainian church centers on this question (which also has a nationalist dimension). Orthodoxy is not to be confused with the various "Uniate churches" which, although originating in Eastern Europe and the Levant, and maintaining Eastern liturgical customs, have allied themselves with Rome and are thus essentially Catholic.

The Orthodox Church is also not to be confused with the "Oriental" (non-Chalcedonian) churches — namely the Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, Eritrean/Ethiopian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, and Malankara (Indian) churches — several of whose patriarchs, confusingly, bear titles identical to those of Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. (There is even a Coptic Pope — who, even more confusingly, is considered the Patrarch of Alexandria but lives in Cairo.) This despite the fact that their theology and liturgy are broadly congruent, and there is even some degree of furtive inter-cooperation if not inter-communion (in contrast to Orthodox / Uniate relations, which are frosty). The differences can be summarized thus: The Assyrian Church of the East (the so-called "Nestorian" church) accepts only the first two ecumenical councils (held at Nicea and Constantinople); the Oriental Orthodox churches also accept the third, the Council of Ephesus, but reject the fourth, the Council of Chalcedon, which the Orthodox Church accepts along with three other councils, for a total of seven. The Catholic Church accepts the seven ecumenical councils recognized by the Orthodox, plus many more (culminating in Vatican II), for a total of 21. The Anglican / Episcopal Church is not sure how many councils it recognizes, and seems relatively likely to remain so, despite having nearly half a millennium to make up their minds.

In Orthodox theology, a council derives its authority from being subsequently embraced by the Church. Several "robber councils" have been held, only to be later disavowed, and it is difficult to suggest any set of legal principles capable of distinguishing valid councils from invalid ones. In any case, the result is that the Orthodox Church accepts that the Virgin Mary is truly called the Theotokos ("God-bearer"), that Christ has two natures in hypostatic union, and that the filioque is bollocks. Also, St. Augustine may have technically been a saint, but the flaws of his theology explain various cultural problems of the European West, culminating in the Great Schism of 1054, the Sack of Constantinople in 1204, the removal of the "religion" category from Greek national ID cards circa 2000, and the 2012 performance of Pussy Riot.

Human rights[edit]

Patriarch Kirill and Vladimir Putin.

The Orthodox Church tends to be socially and politically conservative, to say the least. Not infrequently, it is found cultivating cozy relationships with dictators and other right-wing elements, complicit in xenophobia, fomenting anti-gay riots, and in general making asses of themselves. In 2005, the Greek church was swept with a scandal so multi-tentacled as to defy easy summary (it involved simony, drug- and antiquities-smuggling, bribery/perversion of justice, and various sex scandals).[14] In 2012 Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow, was discovered wearing a luxury Breguet wristwatch, which was later airbrushed from official photographs—rather than admitted to, apologized for, and corrected.

Orthodoxy has been on the receiving end of atrocities as well. The Greek Orthodox Church in Turkey was decimated by the 1923 population exchange that removed all Orthodox from Turkey, with the exception of those within Constantinople itself; although the Patriarch remains in Constantinople (now called Istanbul), he is largely supported by the autocephalous Church of Greece. Now, due to the restrictions placed on the church by Turkey's model of secularism — including the requirement that the Patriarch be a Turkish citizen, a distinction that is claimed by extremely few Greek Orthodox today — the church is having to deal with an aging clergy and an inability to train replacements, as their only seminary was closed under a Turkish law banning any private institutions of higher education.

In Croatia, during World War II, the Serbian Orthodox population was subject to genocide and forcible conversions, under the Catholic Archbishop Aloysius Stepinac. The scale of atrocities appalled even the German Nazis, who intervened and tried to restrain their Croat Nazi Ustasha allies, while Italians who were present in the coastal part of the Independent State of Croatia actively tried to protect the Serbian Orthodox believers. Nevertheless, about a third of over 2 million Orthodox Serbs of WWII Croatia (that included present-day Bosnia) were killed in the most gruesome ways, including human slaughter competitions organized in the Jasenovac extermination camp, while about 250 thousand Serbs were forcibly converted to Catholicism.[15][16]

In Russia the church took a major hit in the Soviet era, with large numbers of clergy killed by the communists, and the vast majority of its churches being either demolished or turned into museums; but since the fall of communism the church has become resurgent, with a large number of churches being reopened or built, and the church gaining sufficient power to take its stand among the persecutors rather than the persecuted. Of note, Stalin had to pause anti-religious campaigns during World War II because the persecution was causing pro-Nazi sentiments among Orthodox Christians, using the Orthodoxy in a rather pragmatic (and cynical) effort to rouse patriotic fervour; Stalin apparently realised that the church was able to rally people in a way even the Communist Party themselves could not, and that he needed help from Western countries who would otherwise be appalled by Soviet Russia's enforcement of state atheism.[17] Official persecution of Orthodox Christians was reduced after Stalin's death, at which point Russian Orthodox priests were often recruited by the KGB to act as spies. Current Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill was one of these KGB priests.[18]

In Syria, the beleaguered Orthodox (along with other Christian groups) are being targeted for execution by Sunni Daesh, who blame them for supporting the Allawi (sectarian Shi'a) government of Bashar al-Assad. This despite the Christians' collective desire to keep their heads down and avoid the fighting.

Patriarch Kirill openly supports the Russian invasion of Ukraine and is increasingly sounding like a Christian Osama bin Laden in his hatred of Ukrainians, even claiming that dying in the invasion "washes away all sins" after the "partial" mobilization in September.[19]


World distribution of Eastern Orthodox adherants

In the United States[edit]

In the U.S., Orthodoxy has several competing organizational structures since it arrived in the country through immigrants. The Russians, via Alaska, are considered to have brought the Orthodox church to the United States, which would have given them first dibs on determining who was in charge; the first Orthodox church in what's now the US was at Fort Ross.Wikipedia However, the Russians didn't stay, and immigrants from other parts of Eastern Europe arrived in America bringing with them their own national churches, which complicated matters. One of the largest groups is the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Many Orthodox bishops outside of North America believe that the OCA is not independent of the Russian Orthodox Church (though, oddly enough, the Russians believe it is).[20]


The Gregorian calendar, currently used worldwide as the civil calendar, was instituted by the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, it was not immediately adopted in non-Catholic areas, specifically Orthodox countries that continued to use its predecessor, the Roman-era Julian calendar.

Until very recently, Orthodox countries used the Julian calendar as a civil calendar; according to the Gregorian calendar, the "October Revolution" is really the November Revolution. These countries now use the Gregorian calendar for civil purposes, but the Eastern Orthodox liturgy still operates according to the Julian calendar; consequently, the Orthodox celebrate Christmas and Easter on different days than Western Christians, and Eastern Orthodox followers resident in Western countries often get to buy their Peeps and Easter Eggs on sale after the nominal Easter celebrations are over.

Eastern Orthodoxy is divided by calendar, although churches with different calendars can nonetheless remain in communion:

  • Some churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, retain the Julian calendar fully.
  • Others, such as most of the Greek Orthodox churches (but not the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem), adopted the Revised Julian calendar. This calendar is effectively the same as the Gregorian, although it will differ from 2800 onwards due to a different way of dealing with leap years. They still retain the Julian calendar for calculating Easter.
  • Within those churches that adopted the Revised Julian calendar, minorities have rejected the new calendar and retained the Julian calendar instead — these are known as "Old Calendarists". These groups are most common in Greece.
  • The Finnish Orthodox Church and the Estonian Orthodox Church have fully adopted the Gregorian calendar, including the Gregorian calculation of Easter.

See also[edit]


  1. Eastern Churches refers to those Churches which have their historical origins in the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire (and later Byzantine Empire) and the Syriac-speaking communities further east. They can be sub-divided into:
    • Eastern Orthodox Church
      • and also schismatic or irregular groups that have separated from the main body of the Eastern Orthodox Church, including Greek Old Calendarists, Russian Old Believers, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church etc.
    • Oriental Orthodox churches, namely those that rejected the Chalcedonian settlement in favour of a monophysite or miaphysite position. This includes the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Eritrean Orthodox Chucrh.
    • Nestorian churches, such as the Assyrian Church of the East.
    • Eastern Catholic (also called Uniate) churches which adhere to Eastern traditions yet have accepted the authority of the Pope.
    By contrast, the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant churches both trace their historical origins to the Latin-speaking Western Roman Empire.


  1. Eastern Orthodox Denomination ThoughtCo.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Oriental Orthodoxy.
  3. http://www.patheos.com/Library/Eastern-Orthodoxy/Ritual-Worship-Devotion-Symbolism/Symbolism.html
  4. http://www.patheos.com/Library/Eastern-Orthodoxy/Ritual-Worship-Devotion-Symbolism/Rites-and-Ceremonies
  5. Wikipedia-List of Coptic Orthodox Popes
  6. List of Syriac Orthodox Patriarchs
  7. List of Greek Orthodox Patriarchs of Alexandria
  8. List of Greek Orthodox Patriarchs of Antioch
  9. Eastern Orthodox Christianity
  10. Norwich, John Julius (1997). A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books. p. 374.
  11. Davis, Paul (1999). 100 Decisive Battles. Oxford. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-19-514366-9.
  12. Runciman, Steven (1968). The Conquest of Constantinople: 1453. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 77–78
  13. Monks brawl at Jerusalem shrine: Israeli police have had to restore order at one of Christianity's holiest sites after a mass brawl broke out between monks in Jerusalem's Old City (9 November 2008) BBC.
  14. Sex and fraud woe for Greek church The Guardian. 18 Feb 2005
  15. Magnum crimen - pola vijeka klerikalizma u Hrvatskoj by Viktor Novak, Nakladni zavod Hrvatske, Zagreb 1948
  16. The Yugoslav Auschwitz and the Vatican by Vladimir Dedijer, Prometheus Books, Buffalo (NY) 1992 445 p
  17. Haskins, Ekaterina V. "Russia's postcommunist past: the Cathedral of Christ the Savior and the reimagining of national identity." History and Memory: Studies in Representation of the Past 21.1 (2009)
  18. Russian Patriarch Kirill spied in Switzerland for KGB in 70s: media, France 24. February 6, 2023
  19. Russian Patriarch Kirill Says Dying In Ukraine 'Washes Away All Sins', Radio Free Europe. September 26, 2022
  20. Erickson, John H. "Chalcedon Canon 28: Yesterday and Today" St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.