Book Review: Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World

By Regina Elsner

Lucian Leustean (ed.), Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World. London: Routledge, 2019, 312p, ISBN 9780815394709, £96.

In 2018, Ulrich Schmiedel and Graeme Smith observed the lack of knowledge about the role of various religions in Europe during the refugee crisis (Schmiedel and Smith, Religion in the European Refugee Crisis, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). Without doubt, the significance of religion – mostly Islam – for the refugees themselves, as the cause of their migration, or as a possible threat to Europe has been discussed widely. Yet, the role of religion in the hosting societies, in their approaches to managing the crisis, dealing with populism and welcoming refugees, has hardly been studied until now. With the new collective work, “Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World”, Lucian Leustean presents one important piece to this puzzle.

In many Western countries, Christian churches are at the forefront of charitable activities. The biblical commandment to love one’s neighbor and one’s enemies has been interpreted for many centuries as the basis for paying special attention to the poor and needy, even if its forms have changed considerably. Around the end of the 19th century, Western churches developed theological social ethics which responded to the growing social challenges that could not be overcome by charitable help alone. Through the various catastrophes of the 20th and 21st centuries, social ethics received an increasingly differentiated theological elaboration and a corresponding development of church structures. Accordingly, in the refugee crisis of 2015, which posed an extreme challenge to many European countries, the churches were central actors both in providing humanitarian aid and in disseminating the political and social discourse of the human right to asylum.

In the Orthodox Church, this social-ethical discourse is still in its infancy. There are two basic texts that formulate the guiding principles of Orthodox social thinking, but both are quite general and demand concretization based on the local conditions of the respective countries. Forced migration, the causes of forced migration, human security and principles of asylum play a rather subordinate role in both documents: The document of the Orthodox Archdiocese of America from 2020 deals with them somewhat more than the text of the Russian Orthodox Church of 2000. However, in recent years many Orthodox Churches were faced with the very practical challenge of taking a position on questions of forced migration and asylum. Many countries in Southeast Europe, which had to deal with mass refugee movements in 2015, are predominantly Orthodox or have a strong Orthodox Church. The refugee movements following Russia’s war against Ukraine also affected all Orthodox countries in Eastern Europe. Orthodox Churches in Western Europe and North America find themselves as diaspora communities in a social environment in which asylum and refugees have led to massive social and political polarization. Yet some academic – theological or other – engagement with the encounter of Orthodoxy with processes of forced migration is still missing.

Lucian Leustean (ed.), Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World. London: Routledge, 2019.

The collective work “Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World” is dedicated to this topic that has not so far been systematically dealt with. The authors start from the observation that, during the refugee crisis in Europe and through Russia’s war against the Ukraine, numerous countries with strong Orthodox national churches were particularly challenged by the new refugee flows. The respective churches reacted very differently, even though they, fundamentally, as one church, share common ideas about human dignity and social values. Western churches are accustomed to a very active humanitarian commitment, and the reticence of some Orthodox churches on the issue became the cause of irritation. The authors are less concerned with the presentation or conception of the Orthodox approach to the refugee question than with a fact-based overview of the local activities and positions of the respective churches. This creates an enlightening panorama of the diversity of Orthodox social-ethical and political attitudes. One of the declared aims of the publication is to provide a basis for policy advice in dealing with church actors in the countries concerned.

The chapters of the book are arranged geographically. In his introduction, editor, Lucian Leustean, explains the methodology of the empirical study he conducted and formulates four recommendations for political actors in the regions concerned. The first chapter is devoted to countries of the former Soviet Union (Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Belarus), the second chapter to Southeastern Europe (Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania), and finally the third chapter to the situation of large Orthodox diaspora churches in Western Europe and the USA. All authors are outstanding scholars from the countries themselves and have been following the connection between religion, politics and society for many years. The respective articles briefly introduce the history and context of state-church relations in the countries concerned and then present the reactions of the Orthodox churches to refugee movements in recent years.

For the Orthodox churches in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the authors identify very similar problems in dealing with forced migration and human security. All Orthodox churches in the countries show a close involvement with the respective state and political elites. Therefore, the lack of an independent socio-ethical concept to the refugee issue counterbalances the fundamental commitment to humanitarian help for the helpless. Thus, the churches appear in all cases as supporters of the respective state migration policy and share their respective, mostly xenophobic, narratives. The case studies support the thesis that these churches, through their cooperation with state structures after the end of Soviet persecution, missed the opportunity to develop a theological position independent of state strategy. The argument is thus that the aspect of national security is often more important than human security.

Another problem in this region appears to be the close connection of the churches with the Russian Orthodox Church. In Belarus and Ukraine, the churches belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate thus lack autonomy in dealing with political strategy and humanitarian requirements. In both countries, this entanglement brings the local churches into a double conflict both with the politics of their own country, where they are in conflict with Russia, and with the mother church in Russia. In both countries, this leads to a withdrawal of the church from socio-political discussions. Even for Georgia, Metreveli makes visible this dependence on Russian narratives, when, in dealing with minorities, the warning of dangers from other cultures outweighs the need for structural support.

In the countries of Southeastern Europe, the situations of the Orthodox Churches are more diverse. The chapter begins with Ulusoy’s text on Turkey, which differs in focus from the other texts in the anthology. Ulusoy presents the socio-political contexts that accompany and shape Turkey’s handling of the massive influx of refugees and its own participation in the war in Syria. The frame of the Orthodox church in Turkey – the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, based in Istanbul – is not mentioned in the text. The Patriarchate functions as honorary chair of the worldwide Orthodox Church, yet it is a tiny minority in the country and has no voice in the country’s political and social discussions. However, an assessment of the position and impact of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the other Orthodox Churches could have been an important aspect of the presentation in this collective work.

The situations of the other churches (Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania) sometimes differ greatly, and their positions differ accordingly. In all cases, nevertheless, the case studies show that the social changes of the past 30 years, including the respective integration processes into the European area, have led to a greater autonomy of the churches in relation to political decisions. Although national security also plays an important role in the churches’ argumentation on refugees, the churches and above all church-based social institutions also have been involved in European human rights discourse and ecumenical humanitarian work for many years. By that, they have also elaborated positions on the protection of refugee rights. Overall, the articles on South Eastern Europe make it clear that faith-based humanitarian organizations of different denominations have a huge stake in shaping the position of the corresponding churches. Even where the official church hierarchy remains silent or indifferent to matters of forced migration, their charitable organizations act ecumenically and for the protection of refugees. Nevertheless, this context of religious diversity and civil society commitments does not lead to the elaboration of socio-ethical principles. Accordingly, the position on forced migration in all the Orthodox churches of Southeastern Europe is based more on ad hoc decisions than on theological principles.

In the final chapter, the authors analyze the Orthodox diaspora from two different perspectives. On the one hand, Mayer shows how a patriotic and partly even nationalistic mood could develop in the Orthodox communities in Western Europe and North America, even though the people themselves had experienced forced migration with all the challenges it entails. On the other hand, Pankhurst describes how the Orthodox churches in America deal with the refugee policy of the USA. In both texts, it becomes clear how difficult it is for the churches to transfer their own migration history to people outside their own community. On the other hand, it also becomes understandable how the minority situation leads to a greater exchange with other churches and thus to the elaboration of own principles.

All texts in the collective work underline the fact that the Orthodox Churches, despite their basic church communion, do not have a common position on current socio-political challenges. This should raise caution to an undifferentiated judgement on the position of the Orthodox Church. For various reasons their approach to forced migration and human security depends on the local context and on their relationship with the local political elites. The book illustrates this diversity in an impressive and broad manner. The question of a deeper theological reasoning and analysis still remains open, but the analysis of practical cases somewhat emphasizes the lack of the systematic theological, social-ethical discussion both on the local and global ecclesial level.

Therefore, this compilation of the case studies is a valuable contribution to understanding the diversity of the Orthodox Church and its local historical differences. From a social science perspective, the contributions show the social importance of church actors, which politics and international charity and human rights work must reckon with. From a theological perspective, they are an important testimony to the active involvement of lay organizations, which often disappear behind the analysis of the positions of church leaders. However, they are also an indication of the social-ethical void within the Orthodox theologies and in intra-Orthodox dialogue.


Regina Elsner is a theologian and researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin since September 2017. Through her project ‘Morality Instead of Peace’, Regina Elsner is investigating the dynamics of Russian Orthodox social ethics since the fall of the Soviet Union.


Citation: Regina Elsner, Book Review: Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.06.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24082.


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