Home Religion Religions and Migrations in the Black Sea Region
In the concluding chapters of their report on religion and conflict, Silvestri and Mayall (2015, 70-73) offer the following remarks:
What does emerge clearly from the literature is that religion does matter in both preventing and resolving conflict, and in making and building peace, but it needs time to analyse the complex interplay and specific articulations of religion in each individual context. This means taking a critical approach to the notion of religion that considers which aspects of the constellations of meanings associated with it are at play in each case. Shaped by history and context-dependent, religion is also culturally loaded, with shifting meanings that can include anything from sacred scriptures, to rituals, communal identity, norm-setting institutions, a focus on a deity or on the inner self.
The brief examination of religion, migration and conflict offered here postulated the shifting meanings of these categories but also their different inter-dependency. The opening of the borders and the end of the Cold War drew the attention to this part of the world. It also re-shifted academic attention and opened the field to new and more diversified research, despite the problems often related to older stereotypes or to access to the region. For example, the eastern borders of the Black Sea, where the Caucasian ranges extend, remained less studied and ‘unknown’ for years (see Grant and Yalcin-Heckman 2007) in comparison to other parts of the post-social space, like the former Eastern Europe or South East Europe.
At the same time, the EU’ s agendas to incorporate these new states where it was feasible, or to build up viable relations to its eastern partners through a politics of enlargement, developed regionally oriented policies and support programmes ((European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), Black Sea Secretariat (BISEC), etc.), BISEC, etc.) which produced expectations about the Black Sea as a region. Reflecting on the production of the ‘Black Sea’ as a geopolitical concept, Dimitrios Triantaphyllou has underlined (2015, 280):
The Black Sea region continues to be a grey zone of instability. Finding expression as a region in the immediate post-Cold War context, its disparate regional actors have not necessarily been able to provide it with a clear codified identity whether its own or part of another (such as European identity, for example). It is in constant flux and home to competitive political, ideological and geographic narratives. It finds itself in regular redefinition as to what it is and whether it is actually a region, a bridge, a buffer zone, a pivot, a transit zone or a corridor, inter alia. There is also debate as to which countries actually comprise it.
Focusing on the categories of religion and migration in this collection has contributed to the re-examination of the boundaries that helped us understand and define this region, not by producing a restricted delineation, but by offering a context where relations and categories could be juxtaposed. The extra stress on conflict and peace in relation to the dominant categories of the volume helped us consider imperial and national histories by postulating the political and cultural frameworks that contributed to the outburst of violence in recent history or helped consolidate peaceful relations.
The 1990s saw the breakup of the Eastern bloc and the opening of the Soviet borders. Although it was considered a period of religious conflict in different parts of the world, religious fundamentalism did not affect the area despite the outburst of violence for ethnic or nationalist reasons, the changes of borders and the massive population movements. This instigated a ‘critical reflection’ on how religion, migration and conflict could be entangled, in which contexts religion and migration could encourage outbursts of violence, and what the underlying factors in such situations could be. Some of the parameters considered were interpretations of religious texts, the importance of religious and political leaders, the role of institutions of power, and secular/religious divisions. Moreover, economic and social inequalities, individual or collective agendas and the interplay between these forces, could either foster peaceful coexistence, or conversely breed conflict. In recent years, a new round of conflicts touched the area (Russian/Ukrainian crisis, Turkish-Kurdish tensions, fears for the expansion of ISIS in various Muslim communities), and the situation was further aggravated by the massive Syrian refugee flow. These created various issues for further reflection and study.
Adam Hug’s report (2015) Traditional religion and political power: Examining the role of the church in Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova underlined the contribution of these Churches on identity formation after the 1990s. Moreover, it also stressed the position these churches had as institutions in the power struggles among elites, their impact on social conservatism and how they affected LGBT communities and less recognised religious groups. The report also underlined the influence of the Russian Patriarchate, often as complementary to the Russian foreign politics and the gradual envisioning of Russia’s position as the dominant power in the region. Both the Patriarchate and the Russian state considered the Black Sea neighbours as their ‘near abroad’, their vital space of interests, as attitude which could be a security risk.
Nevertheless, there are historical divisions within the national contexts of Black Sea states which could play a salient role in the emergence of ethnic conflicts or the fostering of peace. For example, Ukraine’s religious landscape is quite complicated. There is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is subservient to the Moscow Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which is loyal to the Kyiv Patriarchate, and there is also a Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).1 But also, the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine affiliated to Rome is also an important player. As Nicolas Fedyk has stated (2015)2 ‘Ukraine’s religious groups actively participate in civil society. Their robust presence was manifest in the early weeks of the Euromaidan revolution, when religious leaders were visible (...)’. While the Russian/Ukrainian conflict is not a religious one, it led to forced migrations or displaced communities. Ukraine had more than one million Internally Displaced People according to UNHCR3 in 2015 and this could cause social and political problems.
This volume on religion and migration has brought attention to the transnational networks which were formed in the Black Sea in different periods and their important role in forging ties beyond borders. Today, religious networks are discussed often in relation to security issues and terrorism, in particular Islamic terrorist groups. In the past decades there have been doubts about the influence of these groups in different parts of the Black Sea, especially in the North Caucasus. For instance, The New York Times has stated that, ‘[l]aw enforcement officials estimate that there are at least 2000 fighters from the Caucasus among up to 7000 recruits from Russia and the former Soviet Union now in Syria and Iraq’.4 However, there is no data that could support the extensive spread of radical Islam in the area. Similarly, reports that showed recruitment for the Islamic State among Muslim immigrant workers in Russia, especially from Central Asia, connected this last trend more to social inequality and poverty than to religious affiliations.5
At the same time, the strong ties between religion and culture, and concomitant refigurations of ethnicity, have led to the emergence of new transnational ties which try to mobilise world communities against violations of human rights. A case in point is the Yezidis in Iraq. Their suffering from the ISIS generated the support of the Yezidis in Georgia.6 Similar support was expressed by the community in Nagorno Karabakh which is one of the areas of the so-called frozen conflicts in the Caucasus.7
Finally, the flows of the Syrian refugees and other Muslim immigrants from North Africa or the Near East to South-eastern Europe have once more opened the discussion about the meaning of ‘European identity’, often reproducing divisions and stereotypes of the past. These stereotypes have been cross-fertilised with the rise of the extreme right in Europe in the last decade as a result of the economic crisis and the enforcement of neoliberal politics and economics. For many of the countries of South Eastern Europe, such as Turkey and Greece, this flow of refugees could mean that they would turn once again from emigration countries to host societies. In this new political context, religion and migration seem to play a salient role in revisions of boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and a recasting of identity politics. However, further ethnographic and comparative research should be undertaken that will elucidate the interplay between religion and migration within the context of global transformations.
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