The Suffering Church Worldwide - Eastern Europe

The Church is Europe suffered greatly during the 20th century, enduring two world wars and the rise of the Soviet Union. Now, as it continues to recover spiritually and materially from decades of Communist persecution, particularly in Eastern Europe, it confronts continuing ethnic, religious, and political tensions and loss of membership due to secularism, competing religious groups, declining birthrates and other forces.


Catholic Majority Countries

Requesting Help for a Church in LithuaniaBordering Slovenia, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is a majority Catholic country whose population of almost 4.5 million is 87.8% Roman Catholic and 4.4% Orthodox, while the rest is other Christian, Muslim, other, or none. Religious freedom is real and there is a separation of Church and State, but ethnic-religious tensions exist between the Croatian Catholic majority and the Serbian Orthodox minority. As part of Yugoslavia, Croatia was under Communist rule for decades after WWII. In 1991, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia and underwent four years of intermittent fighting before Serb forces were cleared from the land. The 1991-1995 war badly damaged the Croatian economy, which continues to suffer from unemployment, a growing trade deficit, and underdevelopment in certain regions.

Hungary, a country in Central Europe that borders seven different countries including Austria, Ukraine, Romania and Serbia, has a population of nearly 10 million with a Roman Catholic majority of 51.9% and a Greek Catholic minority of 2.6%. The country’s remaining population is divided between Calvinist (15.9%), Lutheran (3%), other Christian (1%), other or unspecified (11.1%) and unaffiliated (14.5%). Communists gained power in Hungary after WWII, and a 1956 revolt was answered with a severe military response by the Soviet Union. A process of economic liberalization, begun in 1968, was completed in 1990. Religious freedom is complete and guaranteed by the Constitution, but the post-communist society of the country is marked by unemployment and strong secularist tendencies.

Damaged Church in LithuanianLithuania, a Catholic majority country in Eastern Europe on the Baltic Sea near Latvia, Belarus, and Poland, has a population of just over 3.5 million, 79% of who are Catholic (the remain 21% are Russian Orthodox, Protestant, other or none). Freedom of religion is complete in Lithuania and is guaranteed by the Constitution. A 1995 law recognized 9 confessions as “traditional religions” of the people of Lithuania: Catholicism (Latin and Byzantine rites), Lutheranism, Reformed, Orthodox, Old Believers, Jews, and Muslims (Sunni and Karaite). These confessions are entitled to government support. Lithuania had been annexed by the USSR in 1940, but it would become the first of the Soviet republics to declare independence in 1990, although Russian troops did not fully withdraw until 1993. A main pilgrimage site which had to be restored after a fire is the “Hill of Crosses,” where over 200,000 crosses have been placed over time. The site was a symbol of faith and resistance for the Lithuanian people during Russian occupation. Emigration is also a problem, as many leave the country in search of greater prosperity abroad.

Evangelization Center in LithuaniaBetween Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Ukraine, Slovakia is a Central European country with a population of almost 5.5 million people who are 68.9% Roman Catholic, 4.1% Greek Catholic, and 10.8% Protestant, while the remaining 16.2% are other, unspecified, or none. After having broken free from Soviet rule in 1989, Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic in 1993. Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Constitution for religious communities which are legally recognized, and these communities are subsidized by the government. Slovakia’s economy has improved since its independence, although unemployment remains a significant problem.

Training Divine Word MissionariesSlovenia, a Central European country that borders the Adriatic Sea, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, is a Catholic majority country in which 57.8% of a population of some 2 million are Roman Catholic, while another 2.4% are Muslim, 2.3% are Orthodox, 0.9% are other Christian and the remaining 36.6% are other, unspecified, none or unaffiliated. As part of Yugoslavia, Slovenia was under Communist rule after WWII until it established its independence after a 10 day war in 1991. The Constitution of 1991 guaranteed religious freedom and the separation of Church and State, and 29 religious communities are now recognized by the government. While its freedom has been fully regained, the Catholic Church in Slovenia is still recovering from the effects of the long Communist rule.


Orthodox Majority Countries

New Church Underway in BelarusBelarus, an Orthodox majority country in Eastern Europe, borders Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Its over 9.6 million people are 80% Eastern Orthodox and 20% Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or other. The Russian Orthodox Church is favored fiscally and administratively by the government, even if the Constitution guarantees religious liberty. The activities of foreign missionaries were drastically limited by the government in 1995, and in 1997 the government banished all unregistered religious confessions. Hostile incidents against religious minorities have also multiplied since 1997. Emigration, especially by young people, is also a serious problem, and the country is also affected by unemployment, underdevelopment, human trafficking, crime and an aging population.

Bulgaria, a nation in Southeastern Europe on the coast of the Black Sea that neighbors Romania, Turkey and Greece, is country of over 7.2 million people, 82.6% of which belong to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Muslims are a significant minority with 12.2% of the population, while Catholics make up less than 2% of the population. The country endured 54 years of Communist domination, from 1946 to 1990, and during its recovery it has also had to battle inflation, unemployment, corruption and organized crime.  While the great majority of Bulgarians are members of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, the country is marked by a profound secularism.

A small island country in the Mediterranean Sea, south of Turkey, Cyprus has a population of just under 800,000, 78% of who are Greek Orthodox, most of who live in the south. Muslims make up 18% of the total population but dominate the north of the country, while a small Catholic minority of 2% lives mainly in the south. Religious, ethnic and political tensions persist between Greek Cypriot majority and Turkish Cypriot minority. In 2006, churches in the Turkish zone were attacked and pillaged, and a Parliamentary report noted that, since 1974, more than 133 churches, chapels and monasteries in the Turkish-controlled zone had been desecrated, 78 churches have been converted into mosques, 28 have been used as military depots and hospitals, and 13 have been used as warehouses. Many religious objects, including 15,000 icons, were also taken from the churches and not returned.

Bordering Ukraine and Romania, Moldova has a population of 4.3 million and is 98% Eastern Orthodox, with only a tiny Catholic community of at most 0.5% and with Jews and Protestants making up the other main religious minorities in the country. While the Constitution guarantees religious liberty, the government supports the Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Moscow and a 1992 law forbade all proselytism and demanded that all religious organizations be official registered.  The people of Moldova are still recovering from the trauma and despair of the former Marxist dictatorship, which only ended in 1991. Moldova is also one of the poorest countries in Europe, and tensions continue between the Romanian and Russian Orthodox Churches.

Romania, located in Southeastern Europe and bordering Ukraine, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria and the Black Sea, has a large Orthodox majority of 86.8%. Various Protestant groups (7.5%), Roman Catholics (4.7%) and others make up the rest of the some 22 million people in the country. The Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu gained power in 1965 and ruled in a cruel and oppressive manger until being overthrown and executed in 1989. The Orthodox Church functions as the state religion, even if the Constitution guarantees religious liberty. The rights of minority religious groups are limited, and promises of restitution of property made by the government to the Greek Catholic Church in 1989-1990 have not been honored.  

Mission Outreach in RussiaWith an estimated population of over 140 million, Russia is the most populous country in Europe and is the largest country in the world in terms of land.  The Russian Orthodox Church represents the largest religious force in Russia (15-20% of the population), although there is also a significant Muslim presence (10-15%) and other Christian populations also exist (2%). Over 70 years of Soviet rule, including periods of great brutality and oppression, has resulted in large numbers of non-believers and non-practicing believers. Roman Catholics are a small minority at an estimated 1.4% of the population. The 1993 Constitution guaranteed religious freedom and the separation of Church and State, but religious legislation passed in 1997 gave full legal status to only the Russian Orthodox Church, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism.  Other religious communities must be registered with the government after a delay of 15 years. The 1997 legislation has been variously applied throughout different regions in Russia, with some areas passing additional restrictions on minority religious groups, resulting in limitations being placed on the rights and activities of these groups. Declining birthrates and other factors have lead to a decline in Russia’s population of 0.5% a year, or 400,000 to 800,000 people, so that Russia has lost nearly 6 million people since 1990. Alcoholism, work and driving related accidents and murders have also led to the deaths of many young people. The Catholic and Russian Orthodox Church have been in dialogue to foster better relations between the two groups.

 Archbishop of Belgrade, Stanislav HocevarSerbia is an Orthodox majority country in South Eastern Europe, near Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Bulgaria, and Romania. The Serbian Orthodox Church makes up 85% of the population of over 10 million, although there are also Catholics (5.5%), Protestants (1.1%), Muslims (3.2%), and atheists or otherwise unspecified (5.2%). The declaration of independence by Kosovo was marked by serious tensions and violence and questions of whether other areas would also move toward independence. Religious freedom and the separation of Church and State are guaranteed by the Constitution, but in practice the Serbian Orthodox Church functions as the state religion and the administration frequently adopts discriminatory measures against ethnic and religious minorities. The growth of radical Marxist, nationalist and Muslim groups also threaten the peace and stability of the country.

New Church and Center in UkraineUkraine, bordering Russia, Romania, Poland and the Black Sea, is a strongly Orthodox country whose population of almost 46 million is divided between Ukrainian Orthodox of the Kyiv Patriarchate (50.4%), Ukrainian Orthodox of the Moscow Patriarchate (26.1%) and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox (7.2%), with the rest of the population made up of Protestants (2.2%), Jews (0.6%) and other (3.2%), although there is Ukrainian Greek Catholic presence of 8% and a Roman Catholic presence of 2.2%. After a brief period of independence in the early part of the 20th century (1917-1920), Ukraine was forced under a brutal Soviet rule and independence was not achieved again until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. While under Soviet control, Ukraine endured artificial famines in the 1920s and 30s which resulted in the deaths of over 8 million. Freedom of religion was guaranteed in the Constitution of 1991, although missionary activity was restrained in 1993 to only those religious communities registered with the government. Local authorities often intervene in religious disputes, particularly those between Orthodox churches and foreign missionaries, and tensions exist between the various Christian communities.

Mixed Countries

Faithful in BosniaBosnia and Herzegovina, which lie between Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro in Southeastern Europe, has a mixed population of over 4.5 million which is divided among Muslims (40%), Orthodox (31%), Catholics (15%) and other (14%). Religious freedom is recognized by the government. The area is still recovering from the violence and strife of the three years of interethnic conflict that occurred in the 1990s. The war and emigration reduced the number of Catholics almost by half, and tensions persist.

The Czech Republic, a Central European country that borders Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Austria, has mixed population of over 10 million that is divided between Roman Catholics (26.8%), Protestants (2.1%), other (3.3%) and unspecified (8.8%), although the large majority are unaffiliated (59%). As part of Czechoslovakia, the country was part of the Soviet Union until 1989 when, after years of harsh repression, a peaceful “Velvet Revolution” took place, leading to the eventual split of Czechoslovakia until the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  The country currently enjoys complete religious freedom, but it is still suffering the consequences of the persecution of the Communist era. The slow reconstruction of the Church in the Czech Republic is not helped by secularism dominates much of the country, and the Church has had difficulties in recovering property or receiving compensation for what was taken by the Communist regime between 1948 and 1989.

Estonia, an Eastern European nation that borders the Baltic Sea, the Gulf of Finland, Russia and Latvia, has a mixed population of just over 1.3 million people of which a significant number are Evangelical Lutherans (13.6%) and Orthodox Christians (12.8%), but over 70% of which are either unaffiliated (34.1%), other and unspecified (32%) or none (6.1%), while Roman Catholics make up less than 1% of the population. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution, but a 1993 law demands that all religious communities be registered with the government. The country was forced into the USSR in 1940, and Christians suffered for their faith during 51 years of Communist dictatorship. Estonia regained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Russian troops finally leaving the country in 1994.  The country still suffers from religious tensions between its Christian denominations, in particular between Orthodox Christians loyal to the Patriarchate of Moscow or to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Restoring a Convent in LatviaSimilar to its neighbor, Estonia, Latvia, an Eastern European on the coast of the Baltic Sea that also borders Lithuania, Belarus, and Russia, has a mixed population of over 2.2 million people, 63.7% of which are unspecified in regards to religious affiliation. Lutherans are the largest specified religious group, making up 19.6% of the population, while Orthodox Christians make up another 15.3%. While statistics are not clear, Catholics may form up to 20.5% of the population. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution, and a 1995 law offers advantages to religious groups that are registered with the government, but new religious movements face difficulties in obtaining official recognition. Foreign missionaries are only allowed if they are invited by registered religious confessions. After years of Soviet rule from 1940 onwards, Latvia finally gained its independence in 1991. The last Russian troops left in 1994, but the country still has a significant Russian minority (30%). Decades of Communist left a spiritual void in Latvia, leaving people to seek meaning in new religious movements, and the Catholic Church is still in the process of rebuilding and renewing itself spiritually and materially after the long years of degradation and confinement. A high deficit and a 10% rate of inflation remain concerns for the country.  

Muslim Majority Countries

In Southeastern Europe, bordering the Adriatic and Ionian Seas and near Greece, Macedonia, and Kosovo, Albania is one of the poorest countries in Europe, having endured almost half a century of Communist rule in which religious confession were severely persecuted. Its over 3.5 million people are 70% Muslim, 20% Albanian Orthodox, and 10% Roman Catholic, although exact estimates are not possible because all religious structures were closed and all religious observances were forbidden in 1967 and were not allowed again until 1990. The country is still trying to deal with unemployment, corruption, poor infrastructure, and organized crime. The Orthodox Church is favored by the government, and the activities of foreign missionaries are drastically limited. Muslim groups have protested the erection of a statue to Mother Teresa.  

Primary source for population and religion estimates:

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