21 January 2016
Vocations to religious life in Eritrea’s new Catholic Church enable it to educate, heal and care for its people. (photo: CNEWA)
Eritrea’s cultural roots run deep: Some 3,000 years ago, Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula crossed the Red Sea and settled in the Horn of Africa. The successive cultures and empires they created — such as the Aksumite and the Abyssinian — are an inheritance Eritreans share with their symbiotic neighbors to the south, Ethiopians.
Eritreans and Ethiopians share many elements of a common history and culture, including the Christian faith and how it is expressed culturally. The vast majority of Christians in both countries share in the ancient traditions of the church as first developed in Alexandria, Egypt, and nurtured over the centuries in Abyssinia by monks and scribes and emperors. Employing the Ge’ez language, steeped in the traditions of the early church, and faithful to indigenous narratives as bulwarks against the influence of European Christianity, Eritrean and Ethiopian Christians are, for the most part, members of the Oriental Orthodox family of churches, which also includes the Armenian Apostolic, Coptic and Syriac Orthodox churches.
Catholics are few, but they make up a disproportionately influential community in both countries. Until a year ago, they formed one church, centered in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa with jurisdictions in Eritrea and Ethiopia celebrating the sacraments in both the Ge’ez and Latin rites. However, last January, the bishop of Rome, Francis, erected a new Catholic Eastern church centered in the Eritrean capital of Asmara.
The Eritrean Catholic Church is now a sui iuris (meaning “of its own right”) metropolitan church and is subject directly to the Holy See. The seat of the metropolitan archbishop is Asmara and includes the eparchies of Barentu, Keren and Seghenity, all of which utilize the ancient Ge’ez rites and traditions, although a few communities continue to use the Latin rite.
Metropolitan Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam, M.C.C.J., leads an estimated 160,000 Eritrean Catholics, and includes a large number of men and women religious who administrate schools, child care facilities and other social service initiatives.
This concludes CNEWA’s series of summaries of the Eastern churches — which may be accessed always from the icon on the blog homepage titled, “Spotlight on the Eastern Churches.” We hope you found this series, which includes links to the more detailed series written for ONE magazine, useful and enlightening.
14 January 2016
Tags: Eastern Churches Eritrea Eastern Catholic Churches Eritrean Catholic Church
Every year thousands of Orthodox Christian pilgrims arrive at the holy mount of Grabarka, some walking many hundreds of kilometers. The pilgrims gather at Grabarka Hill to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration on 19 August. The hill and church are the holiest location for Poland’s 1 percent Orthodox Christians. (photo: Guy Corbishley/Getty Images)
Though Poles and Russians stem from the same Slavic roots, the two peoples developed radically different — and at times polar opposite — orientations. Not unlike the saga of the Polish nation, the chronicles of the Orthodox Church in Poland reveal the struggles of a faith community squeezed between the Latin West and the Russian East.
World War I changed the map of Europe. The Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires collapsed, and from the carnage emerged nation states whose peoples longed for self-determination: Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland.
Poland was created by the victorious Allies as a bulwark to a Russia embroiled in revolution and civil war. Its leaders attempted to emulate the ethnically diverse Polish-Lithuanian state that had once dominated Central Europe until its dismemberment by Austria, Prussia and Russia in the late 18th century.
Resurrected Poland absorbed huge tracts of land and included millions of ethnic Belarussians, Czechs, Germans, Jews, Roma, Russians, Rusyns, Slovaks and Ukrainians — a third of the new nation’s 30 million people. Up to five million of these new Polish citizens professed Orthodox Christianity, a faith long identified with Poland’s neighbor and foe, Russia.
By 1938, and not without its share of controversy, the Orthodox patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow had the independence of a newly organized Orthodox Church of Poland. The state, too, recognized the church.
Wary of the rise of Hitler and the growing power of Stalin, Poland’s government grew increasingly insecure and nationalistic, suspecting the loyalties of Poland’s Orthodox citizens. Despite the protestations of respected church leaders such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Metropolitan of Lviv, Archbishop Andrei Sheptytsky, local governments shuttered Orthodox and Greek Catholic sanctuaries, turned some over to Latin Catholic authorities and razed others.
Hitler’s pact with Stalin in the autumn of 1939, which again erased Poland from the map, suspended these acts of hostility, as large numbers of Orthodox Christians were reintegrated with the Moscow Patriarchate.
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12 January 2016
Most Orthodox Christians in Estonia fall under the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarch. Here in 2003, then Patriarch Alexei II prayed at the grave of his parents in Tallin, Estonia.
(photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Tucked in a remote corner of northern Europe on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, lie the republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These nation states possess distinct cultures, languages and peoples, yet they have shared a common history and fate. Squeezed between larger and more powerful peoples — Danes and Germans to the west, Swedes to the north, Poles to the south and Russians to the east — theirs is a history of domination and subjugation. Each neighboring power has struggled to capture their hearts, minds, souls and wealth.
The Baltic tribes — Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians — were the last European peoples to embrace Christianity. At the end of the 12th century, Pope Celestine III called for a campaign of conversion. These “Northern Crusades,” conducted by military orders allied with the Catholic kings of Denmark and Sweden, succeeded in converting the Baltic peoples by the 14th century.
Christianity, however, was not unknown among them. was not unknown among them. The Slavs of Kievan Rus’, especially those in the nearby city of Novgorod, had established mission churches throughout the Baltic region since they had embraced Christianity in its Byzantine form in the tenth century. The Kievan Rus’ — whose descendants today include Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russians and Ukrainians — maintained close trading partnerships with the various Baltic tribes, whose amber, flax, honey and timber were particularly valued. Some Baltic tribal leaders even adopted the Byzantine religion of the Rus’, erected churches and ordered their peoples to be baptized and instructed in the faith.
Estonia’s Orthodox community is divided along ethnic lines. Soon after Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a dispute developed within the church between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Slavs, mostly Russians. A minority of believers, ethnic Estonians, sought to reestablish an autonomous church under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. The majority wished to maintain their relationship with the patriarchate of Moscow.
Eventually, the two sides agreed on a resolution that allowed individual parishes to decide which jurisdiction to follow. Consequently, there are two Orthodox churches of Estonia.
The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, is led by Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn and All Estonia and includes some 20,000 members in 60 parishes.
The Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, led by Metropolitan Cornelius of Tallinn and All Estonia, encompasses more than 150,000 members in 31 parishes.
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7 January 2016
Tags: Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Estonia
The Orthodox community in the Alaskan village of Tatitlik was greatly affected by the ecological disaster that resulted from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez in 1989.
(photo: David McNew/Getty Images)
North America is a mosaic of ethnic groups and religions. Orthodox Christians are a tiny minority — about 0.65 percent — and include no more than three million of an estimated 460 million people living in Canada, Mexico and the United States. What they may lack in volume, however, North American Orthodox Christians make up in variety. They comprise immigrants and their descendants from Asia Minor, the Balkans, Europe and the Middle East, as well as Alaska Natives and recent converts, especially from the reformed churches.
The ancient rites of the church of Byzantium unite these Orthodox Christians. Rooted in the New World for more than a century, these North American churches retain strong bonds with the Old World, are divided into a number of ethnic jurisdictions — Albanian, Arab, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Rusyn, Serbian and Ukrainian — and typically celebrate the divine mysteries in their respective liturgical languages.
One body has attempted to transcend these cultural differences. Originally a jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church of Russia, the Orthodox Church in America was established in 1970 and is led by a primate with the title of archbishop of Washington, metropolitan of all America and Canada.
Supreme canonical authority in the Orthodox Church in America rests with a synod of bishops from the 14 jurisdictions that compose this autocephalous, or independent, church. In addition, the Orthodox Church in America includes ethnic Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian eparchies and jurisdictions in Canada and Mexico.
In English-speaking Canada and the United States, English is the norm in most liturgical services. Yet other languages may be used depending on the pastoral needs of the parish.
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5 January 2016
Tags: Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Orthodox
Orthodox Christians light candles as they celebrate Orthodox Easter during a midnight liturgy at the cathedral in Korca, Albania. (photo: Gent Shkullaku/AFP/Getty Images)
The creation of the Orthodox Church of Albania began not in remote Albania — a nation in southeastern Europe — but in Boston, Massachusetts. There, in 1908, free from the constraints of Ottoman Turkish oppression and Greek domination, Albanian-American Orthodox Christians formed an ethnic Albanian church, Byzantine in ethos and Orthodox in faith. Four years later — after a rump Albanian state was carved from the Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire — serious discussions surfaced in the homeland concerning the establishment of an independent Orthodox Church of Albania.
Since its inception a century ago, this Christian community has suffered greatly, especially during the Marxist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. In 1967, Hoxha declared Albania the world’s first atheistic state, targeting the country’s Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox communities equally. He jailed the nation’s Orthodox bishops and clergy; an unknown number were murdered. His henchmen shuttered monasteries and pulled down hundreds of churches, converting the remaining sanctuaries into cinemas, clubs, gymnasiums and stables.
Hoxha’s campaign desolated the Orthodox Church. After his death in 1985, and the subsequent collapse of the Marxist government six years later, a representative of the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople toured the country — only 15 clergymen and a handful of laity remained to greet him.
Orthodox Christians once accounted for some 20 percent of Albania’s population; most were “Tosks,” a term that describes a collection of Albanian tribes concentrated in the southern half of the country. Latin Catholics, concentrated among the “Ghegs” in the north, included about 10 percent of the population. Muslims dominated both groups, but all Albanians, Tosks and Ghegs, descended from Christian families who embraced Islam after the Ottomans began to subdue the Balkans in the 15th century.
Today, most Albanians, while conscious of the cultural, religious and tribal identities of their forebears, remain largely aloof from religion. About a third of Albania’s 2.9 million people practice some form of religious faith. Muslims — primarily Sunnis or Bektashi, a Sufi sect — dominate the religious landscape, followed by Orthodox and Catholic Christians.
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29 December 2015
An Orthodox priest holds a cross during the Meskel festival in Asmara, where thousands of people have gathered in the Eritrean capital to celebrate the finding of Christ’s cross by Saint Helen, some 1700 years ago. (photo: Nicolas Germain/AFP/Getty Images)
Though Eritrea’s political history began some 23 years ago, this northeast African nation has rich cultural roots dating back some 3,000 years, when Semitic peoples from the Arabian Peninsula first crossed the Red Sea and settled in the Horn of Africa. These cultural roots are not exclusively Eritrean, but a shared legacy with its symbiotic neighbor to the south, Ethiopia.
While Eritreans and Ethiopians share many elements of a common history and culture, Eritreans have forged a separate identity. Perhaps the single greatest element binding the two nations — the Christian faith and its cultural expression — may best have influenced the evolution of Eritrean self-determination.
Of the nation’s 6.3 million people, more than 50 percent are Christian. Although Catholics and evangelical Protestants are prominent in various ministries, most Christians belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. About 45 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim; animists and unbelievers make up the balance of the population. There have been some tensions among the religious communities, particularly with the influx of evangelical Christian missionaries from the United States, but generally these communities coexist harmoniously.
Historically, Eritrea’s Orthodox Christians have played a prominent role: advocating common bonds with Ethiopians; condemning Ethiopian atrocities and sheltering soldiers in monasteries in times of war; issuing calls for peace with their Ethiopian colleagues; providing care to all Eritreans in need, regardless of creed. Since independence, Eritrea’s Orthodox Church has been reorganized, its strengthened administrative structure poised to make an even greater impact.
Eritrean youth celebrate in Asmara during a colorful Epiphany festival. The festival, also known as ‘Timkat’ in the local Tigrinya language, is a commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus observed annually among the Orthodox Christians. (photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)
Until 1991, Eritrea’s Orthodox Christians formed a single diocese of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In July 1993 — just a few months after Eritreans overwhelmingly approved independence from Ethiopia — a delegation of Eritrean Orthodox Christians, bearing a letter of support from Eritrea’s respected Orthodox leader, Abune Philipos, visited the head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, in Cairo. They appealed for his support for the canonical erection of an independent Eritrean Orthodox Church that would nevertheless remain in full communion with the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox churches.
Pope Shenouda subsequently recognized their request. A signed protocol provided for strengthening cooperation between the two churches, including a joint general synod at least every three years; the formation of a common theological dialogue team; and the creation of a permanent committee to tackle theological formation, catechesis, youth and family programs, social services and development projects.
The then patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Paulos, also sanctioned the new church’s self-governance and issued a joint statement with Abune Philipos pledging mutual support.
In July 1994 Pope Shenouda consecrated five bishops, all drawn from Eritrea’s monasteries, who were elected to serve as diocesan bishops. These five men formed the nucleus of a synod that eventually elected the 96-year-old Abune Philipos, heralded by Eritreans as “the father of resistance to Ethiopian oppression,” as patriarch in 1998.
Click here to read more about the church and its subsequent development.
22 December 2015
Tags: Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches Eritrea
In this image from 2008, some 20,000 Georgian Orthodox believers celebrate the 31st anniversary of Patriarch Ilia II’s installation as head of the church in Tbilisi.
(photo: Vano Shlamov/AFP/Getty Images)
High in the Caucasus Mountains, at the eastern end of the Black Sea, rests Georgia. Poised between the Arabic, Persian and Syriac cultures of Asia and the Greco-Roman world of the Mediterranean, Georgians have fashioned a unique civilization, integrating the some of the customs, ideas and traditions of these seemingly disparate societies with their own.
Christianity — which became the state religion in the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli by the fourth century — is as much responsible for the creation and survival of this distinctive nation as its unique language.
Strategically situated on this crossroads, tiny Georgia has repeatedly overcome far superior foes — Romans, Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Ottomans and Russians. And the Orthodox Church of Georgia, often described as the buttress of the nation, remains a formidable force in the lives of the country’s 4.7 million people, 84 percent of whom belong to the church.
A church choir performs a chant at Mama Davitis Church in Tbilisi. Chants play an integral role in Georgian Orthodox church liturgy. (photo: Molly Corso)
Byzantine and Coptic histories note that St. Matthias the Apostle first brought the Gospel to the Georgian kingdom of Kartli and died a martyr’s death there around the year A.D. 80. Other Christian sources credit the apostles Andrew, Bartholomew, Simon the Zealot and Thaddeus with forming Christians among Georgia’s Jewish communities in Kartli and Egrisi, the western Georgian kingdom known by the ancient Greeks as Colchis — the mythical land of Jason, Medea and the Golden Fleece.Modern archaeological evidence — the remains of second- and third-century Christian tombs as well as early fourth-century churches — indicates an early presence of the faith, particularly near the Black Sea coast. That Christianity was the official religion of Kartli by the year 337 is incontestable. Armenian, Byzantine, Georgian, Greek and Latin sources all indicate that, in circa 300, Nino, a woman from Cappadocia, left Jerusalem for Kartli in search of the robe from Christ’s crucifixion.
“Equal to the apostles,” as Georgians revere her today, St. Nino worked primarily among the kingdom’s Jews, who were her first disciples. Written about a century after her death, “The Life of St. Nino” records the close relationship that existed between Nino and the Jews of Mtskheta (the capital of Kartli) as well as between the churches of Georgia and Jerusalem. It also details the conversion of King Mirian III, his establishment of Christianity as the faith of the kingdom and the erection of a shrine in Mtskheta to house the robe of Christ, known as the cathedral of Svetitskhoveli, or the “life-giving pillar.”
The “life-giving pillar” still stands in the heart of the nation, the bells summoning the faithful from Georgia’s mountains and valleys. To read more, click here.
17 December 2015
A Russian Old Believer has her hair braided on her wedding day in Staraya, near St. Petersburg. (photo: Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images)
As Vladimir V. Putin asserts Russia’s position in the international community, the leadership of Russia’s dominant Orthodox Church — the Moscow Patriarchate — has allied itself with his government, resurrecting hopes for many and fears for some that a reinvigorated Orthodox Church aligned with a burly government will forge a more cohesive “Russian” nation.
Yet Russia’s population of 143.5 million includes an array of distinct ethnic, linguistic and religious groups, and the Moscow Patriarchate — which seeks to restore what the Communists had destroyed — is not the sole guardian of the country’s Russian legacy. Russia’s Old Believers (or Starubryadsty, meaning Old Ritualists) once preferred imprisonment, exile or even death to the liturgical reforms of the 17th century that were initiated by the confidant of the tsar, Patriarch Nikon of Moscow.
Put to the sword for their rejection of these reforms, surviving Old Believers fled the reach of tsar and patriarch, settling in the isolated steppes or tundra of the vast Russian empire. They fled without bishops, priests and, consequently, the sacraments. Thus denied a hierarchy, these bezpopovsty (priestless) believers organized themselves into self-sustaining lay communities that elected their own nastavnik, or teacher.
As the tsars extended their reach beyond the Ural Mountains, consolidated their realm, eliminated the patriarchate and subordinated the power of the clergy and nobility, they escalated their persecution of Old Believers, who may have composed as much as a quarter of the Russian population by the late 18th century.
Russian Old Believers pray inside a chapel in Rostov-on-Don. (photo: Alexander Blonitsky/AFP/Getty Images)
Isolated and spread over vast areas of two continents, Old Believers consequently split into many fiercely independent groups. Each community developed its own peculiarities and characteristics. Nevertheless, they all retained traditional Russian iconographic forms; preserved traditional church architecture and church appointments, even though they lacked priests and sacraments; and upheld the language and theology of the pre-reformed Orthodox Church of Russia.
After Tsar Nicholas II issued the Edict of Toleration in May 1905, Old Believers were legally recognized and permitted to practice their faith openly. Soon after the tsar’s decree, the altars of the Old Believers’ chapels were “unsealed” and a “golden age of Old Belief” flowered, coinciding with the rise of Russia’s merchant princes, many of whom belonged to prominent Old Belief families. These industrialists commissioned the nation’s leading architects and artists to design new churches and encouraged a revival of ancient chant and scholarship.
This golden age ended abruptly with abdication of the tsar in 1917 and the subsequent Bolshevik coup d’état in 1918. These militant atheists saw the Old Believers as capitalists and defenders of an older order. They ruthlessly persecuted Old Believers as they did all believers. Little is known of Russia’s Old Belief communities between 1918 and 1991.
Today, perhaps as many as 10 million Old Believers — scattered throughout European and Asian Russia as well as the Balkans, the Baltic states and North America — safeguard the cultural and spiritual heritage of Russia’s pre-westernized civilization, holding dear the “true” traditions of Russian Orthodoxy, free of the influences that came to dominate the Russian state in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Click here to read more, and of the recent developments to heal this breach in Russian Orthodoxy.
15 December 2015
Tags: Russia Eastern Christianity Eastern Churches
Syro-Malankara Catholic seminarians take part in a service at St. Mary’s Major Seminary
in Kerala. (photo: John E. Kozar)
In the subcontinent of India, Christians have flourished since ancient times. Originally united in faith, customs and caste, they are called the son and daughters of St. Thomas. According to tradition, the apostle brought the Christian faith to the Malabar Coast of southwestern India after the ascension of Jesus. Today these Christians, all of whom belong to the Syriac Christian tradition, are fragmented into seven churches. The youngest of these distinct churches, the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, is a dynamic community that commissions priests and religious to northern India, Europe and North America, even as it grows and flourishes in South India, its geographic heart.
The Syro-Malankara Catholic Church came into being in the early 20th century as a work of the “reunion movement” and one visionary: Gheevarghese Panicker, better known as Mar Ivanios.
As with his contemporaries, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) — whose writings inspired the young priest — Father Gheevarghese was preoccupied with the renewal of his Malankara Syriac Orthodox community. He envisioned a monastic community for men and women that would integrate the monasticism of his own Syriac tradition with the essence of Hindu spirituality, sunyasi, the process of leading an interior life. Deeply spiritual, he reasoned that a community dedicated to contemplation, social action and evangelization would spark renewal.
Father Gheevarghese founded such a community, Bethany, modeling it on the Gospel account of Bethany. In an interview with CNEWA in February 1997, one of the last surviving original members of the community, 94-year-old Father Raphael, described a “revolutionary” spirit at the monastery, which combined the asceticism of the Hindu monk with the social teachings of the church and a commitment to imitate Christ.
Boys at the Malankara Boys’ Home in Kerala pause on the lawn to pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary before going to school. (photo: Jose Jacob)
“Having taken the three vows of chastity, poverty and obedience,” he recalled, “we Christian sunyami [monks]... led a simple, spiritual life. All were vegetarian, slept on the floor, ate from simple earthen pots, had only two sets of clothes, observed virtual silence and were at prayer five times a day.” On Sundays, the monks went into the community, preaching, counseling and consoling.
The monks of Bethany stirred interest among the Malankara Syriac Orthodox faithful, who, according to observers, continuously sought the community’s counsel. As Bethany grew, so too did interest among the Thomas Christians in a “reunion movement,” which picked up steam particularly after Father Gheevarghese was consecrated bishop in May 1925.
Choosing the name Ivanios, the new bishop immediately challenged the catholicos, bishops, priests and people of the Malankara Syriac Orthodox Church to “bring all the Syrian Christians of Kerala, who formed one church formerly, into true union once again so that the biblical idea of ‘one fold and one pastor’ may become a reality.”
Charged by the synod of the church, Mar Ivanios contacted the Catholic Church in 1926 about re-establishing full communion between the two churches, provided the Holy See recognize the validity of Malankara Syriac Orthodox orders, preserve its administrative structures in India and the use of the Western Syriac liturgy.
To read a full account of the formation and activity of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, click here.
10 December 2015
The frescoes adorning the Church of Saint Clement in Ohrid reveal the splendor of medieval Macedonia. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Except for a brief period some 1,000 years ago, the territory in the Balkan Peninsula now commonly known as Macedonia has always been subjected to land-grabbing by Bulgarians, Greeks, Serbs and Turks.
In 1991, the disintegration of Yugoslavia — an “experiment” of the Romantic era that united, among others, Macedonians, Croats, Serbs and Slovenes regardless of culture, history and religion — reignited Macedonian cultural and political aspirations for independence. This return of the “Macedonian Question,” which once haunted Europe’s crowned heads and ministers, has fueled new fears of instability in the Balkans — the “powder keg of Europe.”
Macedonian Orthodox await Easter in the Church of Saint Clement in Ohrid. (photo: Sean Sprague)
The preeminent faith community of the country, the Orthodox Church of Macedonia, is also engaged in an ongoing struggle for recognition. Historically, the various national Orthodox churches of the Balkans — Bulgarian, Greek, Montenegrin, Romanian and Serbian — have played leading roles in the development of their distinct nations, serving as cultural repositories and bastions of faith especially in times of peril. Macedonia’s Orthodox Christians, who account for nearly two-thirds of the populations, have taken that lead, but not without incurring isolation and scorn.
Led by its embattled head, Archbishop Stefan of Ohrid and Macedonia, the Orthodox Church of Macedonia works closely with the Macedonian state in developing and nurturing a distinct Macedonian Slav identity, in a nation that remains among Europe’s poorest.
Click here to read more.