A new study by the Pew Research Center shows that religion has returned as an essential part of identity -- both individual and national -- in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. According to the study, there are now majorities in the countries of the region that profess a belief in God, while identifying with a particular faith tradition. Just as they were 100 years ago, Orthodox and Catholic churches are the most prevalent affiliations in countries once ruled by the Russian czar or the Austro-Hungarian emperor, respectively.
The report, titled “Religious Belief and National Belonging in Central and Eastern Europe,” found that religious observance is low, however. Few people pray daily or attend religious services. For example, only 10 percent of Orthodox Christians do so. However, the return of religion in the lands of the European East has been striking, especially in those countries where Orthodox Christian churches are prevalent. The level of religious affiliation in those countries has risen in those countries since the fall of the Soviet Union.
However, affiliation with the Catholic Church in Eastern and Central Europe has not seen the same level of increase. According to Pew, “Catholicism in Central and Eastern Europe, meanwhile, has not experienced the same upsurge as Orthodox Christianity. In part, this may be because much of the population in countries such as Poland and Hungary retained a Catholic identity during the communist era, leaving less of a religious vacuum to be filled when the USSR fell.”

The secular Czech Republic

Affiliation with the Catholic Church has actually dropped in some of the countries included in the study. In the Czech Republic, for example, the percentage of Czechs identifying as Catholic dropped from 44 percent in 1991 to 21 percent now current. The Pew report found that the Czech Republic is now one of the most secular countries in Europe: almost three-quarters of adult Czechs (72 percent) describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular.” According to Pew, this may be due to their “political geography,” in that Catholic countries are “further west (and identifying with the West) while the Orthodox countries are further east and many were part of the former Soviet Union.”


Differences in response to democracy

The Pew study found that the fall of the Iron Curtain has played out different in Catholic countries as opposed to Orthodox countries. 
Interestingly, the Pew study found discrepancies as to religious practice among Catholics and Orthodox. “Despite declining shares in some countries,” the report read, “Catholics in Central and Eastern Europe generally are more religiously observant than Orthodox Christians in the region, at least by conventional measures. For instance, 45 percent of Catholics in Poland say they attend worship services at least weekly – more than double the share of Orthodox Christians in any country surveyed who say they go to church that often.”
National identity and Orthodox Christian faith have long been intertwined in Eastern European countries. Their people are proud of their ancient churches and their contribution to their culture. The report stated, “Many of the predominantly Orthodox countries surveyed have centuries-old national churches, such as the Greek Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church and Armenian Apostolic Church, and there is popular support for these institutions to play a large role in public life.”
In Catholic-majority countries, there is greater support for keeping church and state affairs separate. The Pew study found in those countries that there is a median of just 41 percent of respondents who support government funding of churches and 28 percent in favor of governments promoting religious values and beliefs.
The Pew study found the return of religion to Eastern Europe has “played out differently in the predominantly Orthodox countries of Eastern Europe than it has among the heavily Catholic or mixed-religious populations further to the West.” While there has been a renewal of religious identity in Orthodox countries, levels of religious practice are comparatively low. “And Orthodox identity is tightly bound up with national identity, feelings of pride and cultural superiority, support for linkages between national churches and governments, and views of Russia as a bulwark against the West.”
In other findings in the report, the widely-held desire for a strong Russia may stem from a “perceived values gap with the West.” For example, people in Orthodox countries are more likely than those in Catholic-majority countries to agree with the statement, “There is a conflict between our country’s traditional values and those of the West.” Also, respondents who agree with that statement also are more likely than those who disagree to say a strong Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West, the report said.

Russia's perennial role

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the advent of systems more friendly to democracy and free markets, Pew found that while the prevailing view of 11 of the 18 countries surveyed is that democracy is preferable to any other form of government. Only Greece (77 percent) and Lithuania (64 percent) had clear majorities that agree. In addition, Orthodox-majority countries tend to see Russia as an important buffer against the West. Most of the countries surveyed (with the notable exception of Ukraine) agreed that “a strong “Russia is necessary to balance the influence of the West.” The study found that even in NATO and EU-member Greece, 70 percent agree a strong Russia is needed to balance the West. 
However, this sentiment is shared by considerably fewer people in Catholic and religiously mixed countries in the region.
Russians generally accept the role of protector of Orthodox countries: 72 percent of Russians agree that their country has an obligation to protect Orthodox Christians outside of Russia.  In addition, 77 percent of Russians believe that Russia has an obligation to protect ethnic Russians living outside of Russia. And clear majorities of ethnic Russians living outside of Russia identify as Orthodox and agree that Russia has a responsibility to protect them. 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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