While many ethnic, economic, and political tensions have fueled clashes in the Balkans during the past several centuries, the conflict has been exacerbated by the presence in the region of three competing religions: Islam, Roman Catholicism, and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Understanding these religious influences on the Balkans and how they are intertwined with political, ethnic, and cultural identities can offer insight into a complex and troubled part of the world.
History and Geography
History and Geography made the Balkans a focus of religious tensions. The rugged Balkan states of southeastern Europe have, for centuries, occupied a region at the historical and geographical convergence of three competing influences: the Islamic Ottoman Empire, Greece and Russia with their Eastern Orthodox Christianity inherited from the Byzantine Empire, and Western Europe with its Roman Catholicism. After the fall of the Habsburg and Ottomon Empires in World War I, the region became a powder keg which has repeatedly exploded into ethnic, political, and religious conflict.
At its height, the Islamic Ottoman Empire, which inherited the power and territory of both the medieval Arab Empire and the Byzantine Empire, controlled several of the Balkan states. The high tide of the Ottoman Empire took it as far as the gates of Vienna, and even after its centuries-long decline began with a 1571 defeat at the Battle of Lepanto, it survived until the First World War. Long after the tide of the deeply Islamic Ottoman Empire receded from Europe, Muslim communities remained in the parts of the Balkans it had controlled, particularly Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Kosovo.
After the Roman Empire divided, with a western capital at Rome and an eastern capital at Constantinople, the eastern and western branches of the church, already divided by long-simmering theological differences, also grew further apart. A process of increasing separation ultimately resulted in the Great Schism, which split the church along linguistic, geographical, political, and theological grounds, and which proved irreparable despite several attempts to achieve reconciliation. The Latin western branch of the church would develop into medieval Roman Catholicism, governed by the pope in Rome. The Greek eastern branch of the church was governed by the patriarch of Constantinople. Several theological differences divided the two branches of Christianity, including different beliefs about church government and the sacraments. Eastern Orthodox Christianity developed several branches, but they were united by many common elements and considered themselves part of one communion. After the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, several Orthodox churches organized themselves in the newly liberated Balkan states, most famously in Serbia.
The third religious influence in the Balkans is Roman Catholicism, the religion of the Habsburg rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire which controlled much of the Balkans until the First World War. Today Catholicism is the religion of many Croats, some Albanians, and some Slovenes.
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