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Transnational Religions and Migrations

As I have suggested, the practice of kurban reaffirmed the identity of the Greeks of Tsalka, like in the case of Olga, by connecting the family with the religious tradition of the area. But this tradition had different historical re-significations that also resulted in the renegotiation of the identity of the Greeks of Tsalka as part of the Greek diasporas. This renegotiation did not take place without ambiguities. Here, I am going to discuss the meaning of this diasporic identity in relation to transnationalism. As noted above, Olga is also an active member of the diaspora through her participation in mobilisation networks. After her husband’s death, Olga undertook a role in the association of the women of Tsalka as its leader. Olga’s association formed part of the Confederation of the Associations of the Greek Georgian Communities,5 which in turn was part of the Council of Hellenes Abroad, an umbrella association for all the Greek diasporas. In this way, the local became part of the global under the umbrella of an ethnic Greek culture which tried to transcend the national borders.

In the 1990s, Orthodoxy became an important part of repositioning of religion within Europe. The enlargement of the EU in the 1990s led to heated debates over the meaning of Europeaness. Orthodoxy formed part of European Christianity, but at the same time its relation to Europe and the idea of Europeaness was debated. Leontidou reflects on those changes (2004, 612):

Despite the fact that European culture is indeed secular, we have come to a turning point when modernity can not be taken for granted as the essence of European identity. The enlargement towards the Eastern borders and the strategic partnership with Russia as well as the migrations from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet territory in 1990s updated the issues of the religious and the secular for Europe and made it part of the identity politics of the EU.

This identity politics had to be addressed in relation to the transformation of the interstate system, in other words the denationalisation of economics and politics (Sassen 2003), which privileged biopolitics as one of the last fields where traditional political elites could still exert power. In this context, Olga’s family had to use its Greek identity to pursue the dream of a better life. This was made possible, on the one hand, through the ethnification of migration in Greece which categorised sameness and difference based on a tradition of ethno-symbolism (shared myths and values that often connect to blood). Ethno-symbolism essentialised culture on account of specific criteria, such as the Greek-Orthodox religion. On the other hand, Olga’s participation in diasporic mobilisation facilitated this essentialisation, authenticating her Greekness, helping the emigration of her children to Greece and strengthening her position within Greek dia- sporic politics in Georgia.

Through this ethnicisation, the family’s efforts to access citizenship were met with success in comparison to other non-ethnic Greek immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and despite the “unorthodox” practice of kurban. Reflecting on Olga’s example one may argue that citizenship and religion are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but rather should be rethought as potentially mutually constitutive. As Levitt argues (2003, 847) in relation to the transnational character of religion in many immigrant communities, “religious identities and practices also enable migrants to sustain membership in multiple locations”. I believe that the case of Olga and the Greeks of Tsalka illustrates the interlinking of these different locations. At the same time, transnationalism in religion has another result, that of the emergence of a civic identity through the engagement with the association of the Greeks of Tsalka. However, as discussed above, Olga’s activism in her association of the women of Tsalka is tied to her Greek ethnicity and her local identity: through the latter she can participate in the former, albeit not without the challenges presented in this paper. This helps us think of the idea of civil society not as an alternative route to social participation that transcends bounded and restricted national borders, but as a context where these restrictions are also reframed.

The diasporic turn of Greek Orthodoxy, in other words, its historical existence after the formation of the Greek state (1830s) was further reinforced in the 1990s with the transnationalism of various groups. As a result, different ethnic Greek Orthodox communities and practices came into contact with each other, but also, with other communities in other parts of the world (see Walters 2015). These new encounters are fruitful ground for further study. In what ways did these encounters rediscover the old Orthodox ecumenism and in what ways did they renegotiate it? For example, the building of churches in Georgian style in villages where ethnic Greek—Georgians, and especially Greeks from Tsalka, live in Greece is an outcome of these new encounters.6 This re-spatialisation of the religious, according to Metcalf (1996, 18) acts as “mental maps” for the communities of immigrants cultivating a diasporic identity. Religious spaces are simultaneously produced by “superlocative, just as much as locative or translocative forces” and through different scales, “across, up or down” (Knott quoted from McLoughin 2013, 136). They are also produced with the help of new technologies which multiply the public spaces (Miller and Slater 2000, 178) where these practices are performed, and increase the visibility of these customs.7 To what extent this visibility can increase acceptance, or conversely breed conflict, should also be further explored.

To conclude, Olga’s participation in the association of the Greeks of Tsalka has ethnic characteristic, as it stresses her ethnic origin from the Greeks of Tsalka and reaffirms old perceptions of political recognition based on territorialised ethnicity on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Following the practice of kurban, the family reaffirmed and even strengthened its identity at a local and diasporic level. The heterogeneity produced when the former is contrasted to the alleged purity of the national is allowed as a part of the diasporas. At the same time, Olga’s participation in the diasporic associations, which were organised under the auspices of the Greek state, further solidifies the family’s official Greekness. However, the transnational lifestyle of the family and the increasingly transantional character of these associations multiply the spaces of visibility of the local and produce new opportunities of identity construction in the future. Furthermore, Olga’s religious practices remind us of a regional cosmopolitanism that characterised the history of migrations and encounters of the Black Sea and shaped the religious encounters of Orthodoxy and Islam. Transnationalism has increased the spaces where the identity of the Greeks of Tsalka as diasporic Greeks became visible, producing new opportunities and challenges both for national and regional cultures.

Global religions that thrive in the Black Sea are tied to the history of colonialism and the forced movement of peoples it provoked. Yet global religions also pose a critical context for a new discussion of migration and religion through the comparative understanding of different categories of belonging (diasporas, immigration) and different scalar perspectives (local, national, transnational, global). In this framework, Olga’s kurban as part of Tsalka’s tradition affirms the world character of Orthodoxy as a colonial and hegemonic tradition, but it also repositions Orthodoxy in a multi-scalar and multi-level context of new significations. Furthermore, Olga’s case invites ethnography to undertake a more elaborate exploration of the world character of the Black Sea.

Ethnography that builds on

area-based knowledge is intended to draw attention to knowledge production that starts with knowing about an area, but then using that knowledge to process trends and phenomena that transcend any given area. It is our working premise that geographically defined places, from remote villages to entire continents, are caught up in processes that link them to events, that although geographically distant, are culturally, economically, strategically, or ecologically quite near. (Prewitt 2002, 8)

It is in this way that the Black Sea can be approached as a region that could contribute to the comparison of practices that sound familiar as “ours”. It would make us revisit this distinction between We/Others. In this framework, Olga and the Greeks of Tsalka face new challenges as what they learnt to define as “theirs” is now tested against different scales (local, regional, national, transnational, global), thus inviting a renegotiation of the past. Religion, as I have discussed in this chapter, was a fundamental category in order for this past to be constructed. Nevertheless, it should now be reassessed and be re-signified in more diversified contexts and agendas

(diasporic associations, national, EU). These agendas have become part of the everyday experience of the Greeks of Tsalka, as a result of their history of emigration and emerging transnational lifestyles. These new lifestyles and challenges turn the Black Sea today to what Prewitt (Prewitt 2002, 8) refers to as an area “geographically distant but quite near”.

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