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Eastern Orthodox Christians claim that there has been a 'Holocaust' of sorts in the latter part of the 19th century and throughout the entire 20th century (and continuing into the 21st century). But unlike the 6 million Jews killed in Nazi Germany, they claim that 50 million Eastern Orthodox Christians have been killed, many under Islamic and Communist regimes.

This seems believable in light of the the Black Book of Communism, which records close to 94 million deaths under Communist governments, and most Russians and Eastern Europeans consider themselves to be Eastern Orthodox (70% of Russians considered themselves to be Orthodox in March 2012, but far less are recorded as such according to the CIA World Fact Book which likely factors low participation in religious services as a factor).

Is this claim concerning 50 million Orthodox Christians being killed historically accurate? The specific claim from the essay is:

Between the tolls exacted from prisons, concentration camps, forced marches and exiles, warfare, famine, and brutal military occupation, it is reasonable to conclude that up to 50 million Orthodox Christians have perished in the first eight decades of the twentieth century.

CLARIFICATION: A large factor in how you count this is whether having a certain national heritage automatically makes one Orthodox (i.e. phyletism). A good answer will need to determine if ethnophyletist reckonings of Orthodoxy are valid for determining a death toll or not. A view that accepts phyletism may well use any deaths in certain countries as Orthodox Christian deaths, or perhaps determine how to subdivide this (were they killed for their faith/heritage or for other reasons?), while a view that rejects ethnophyletist claims may use facts like those cited above for what percentage of various nations should be considered 'Orthodox Christian' to further break down these numbers. I am not sure, but it is my presumption that the author of the article claiming 50 million Orthodox Christian deaths takes a phyletist worldview as a given.

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    Yes, is the 50 million number correct (and a sub-factor of that is: can you really consider all those who died in Eastern European nations to be Orthodox? Phyletism is the predominant Eastern European Christian worldview, but is this valid for such claims?) I'm open to any verifiable/reliable sources. – Dan Dec 19 '13 at 21:38
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    @Sklivvz good call, I was just using the term they use. Thanks for the editing (I am opening to editing my content to improve it any time - it's what makes the SE network awesome). – Dan Dec 19 '13 at 21:46
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    @Sklivvz should I take the word out of the first sentence to? Or qualify it as a term used by Orthodox Christians? – Dan Dec 19 '13 at 21:47
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    @adam.r I disagree that the problem is the question. The claim has been made and the bias of the source is clear. But the correct response to this is a high quality answer that dissects the statistics and rebuts the intended conclusion of the claim. – matt_black Dec 20 '13 at 9:14
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    @adam.r For me a good answer would dissect the total numbers and put them in context showing whether or not the intended implication of the question (the orthodox are a persecuted minority) is correct. – matt_black Dec 20 '13 at 10:15
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The claim is essentially correct -- tens of millions of Orthodox Christians died of political violence in the 20th century. However, everything that Mr. Serfes tries to imply by making that claim is basically wrong.

Complications

First, it's hard to be more precise about the claim because Mr. Serfes' essay loaded with so much hyperbole that his claim is almost nonsensical. The specific claim is that "up to 50 million Orthodox Christians have perished in the first eight decades of the twentieth century." He is actually asserting an upper limit, though his thesis is based on conveying the impression that this is a large number of people -- which requires a lower limit instead. Serfes basically accounts for 15 million deaths (or so), and then bumps the number up by a few tens of millions by appealing to the general political turmoil of Eastern Europe during the 20th century.

While this gives him a nice big headline figure, it undermines his thesis by demonstrating that there is nothing special about the suffering of the Orthodox Christian community -- Orthodox Christians simply lived in a region of the world that was in constant political turmoil since roughly the 1880s, and therefore a lot of them died violent deaths, just like a lot of people in other parts of the world. I do not mean to trivialize their suffering, I am simply providing context for the facts that Serfes cites in his political diatribe disguised as a memorial.

An additional complication in evaluating the claim arises from the unclear and possibly inconsistent definition of "orthodox Christian" that Serfes uses. As suggested in the question, it appears that he treats the term as synonymous with "person of a traditionally Orthodox Christian nationality". This is consistent with how the term "Jew" is used with respect to the Nazi's genocide towards the Jewish people, since the Nazi's defined "Jew" based on genetic heritage and not any profession of faith. Furthermore, it may be consistent with some modern American notions of religious discrimination, since such discrimination is driven by the perception of religious identity, regardless of actual religious belief. It's possible (and likely) that membership in a historically Orthodox national group was taken as evidence of Orthodox Christian faith by the attackers. However, in the cases that Serfes cites, I see little indication that the attacks were driven by religious animosity rather than nationalist or racist animosity -- or simply the desire to dominate others.

In addition, it is unclear what Serfes includes under his umbrella term "Christian Orthodox". From my brief reading, it seems that the Eastern Orthodox communion (Russia, Greece, Ukraine) and the Oriental Orthodox communion (Armenia, Ethiopia) have some substantial theological differences; institutionally, they diverged prior to the "Great" Catholic/Eastern schism.

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Serfes also includes the Assyrian and Ethiopian Churches among his list of victims. I'm not sure why he lumps these branches together -- is it simply their geographical clustering? Perhaps he considers the Great Schism to be the fundamental division in Christianity (with the Eastern Orthodox church being affiliated with the Oriental and Assyrian churches). Or perhaps -- to acknowledge his thesis of Orthodox persecution -- he suspects that Western Christians view the "pre-Roman Catholic" churches to be somehow primitive.

A final problem is that Serfes seems to exclude Orthodox vs. Orthodox violence from his tally. This becomes a serious complication when we aren't sure who to count as Orthodox -- I get the impression that Russian Communists are to be counted as "Orthodox" when they are the victims of political violence, but not the perpetrators.

In general, I will be tallying the deaths of people from Orthodox Christian nationalities, and noting the relevant complications as they arise. I doubt that it is possible to provide a more precise accounting of "Orthodox Christian" deaths since the Orthodox church was the state-sponsored religion for many of these nationalities.

The Tally

Serfes has essentially summed up the death counts from a variety of unconnected events, which I will list below.

1) The Armenian Genocide (1915-1923): up to 1.5 million people. This doesn't contribute much to the 50 million deaths, so I'm not going to quibble over the numbers and I'll just take the value from the people who are trying to raise awareness of the genocide (Serfes claimed 1.8 million). However, this has a strong psychological impact because it was a genocide attempt (a Holocaust, if you will). Furthermore, the modern Turkish state still favors Islam (sometimes at the expense of Orthodox Christians) and persecutes those who raise awareness of the genocide, so this supports Serfes' contention that Orthodox Christians are an marginalized minority.

However, it also undermines his assertion that the USA and Western governments are insensitive to the plight of Orthodox Christian nationalities, since Turkey's NATO allies regularly risk diplomatic rifts by bringing up the issue of the Armenian Genocide, just as they condemned it as it happened.

Another note on this topic is that the Ottoman/Turkish governments that perpetrated the genocide were not Islamist (as implied in the question), they were secular Nationalist (even militantly secular).

2) The Balkans, Greece, and the fall of the Ottoman Empire (1912-1922): Serfes claims 1.75 million Greeks "murdered by Turkish persecutions", with the massacre of Smyrna (1922) as the touchstone of this violence. Again, the numbers are a small portion of the total, so I'm not going to bother with the details. While Serfes limits his count to WWI period (and the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire), this violence seems to be intimately linked with the 19th century's wars of Independence for the Greek(1821) and Balkan Christian nations, along with the Russian expansion into Ottoman territory.

The massacre of Smyrna seems to be the finale to an almost continuous period of violence ranging from the Balkan Wars (1912-1913), through WWI (1914-1918), and the Greko-Turkish war (1919-1922). While these wars mainly saw Orthodox Christian Nations allied against the Ottoman Empire (with Western powers aiding either side as suited them), Bulgaria often fought against other Orthodox Christian nations (in the Second Balkan War and WWI).

Cumulative total: up to 2.25 million

3) World War I (1914-1918): Serfes does not mention WWI directly, only indirectly in his summary statement mentioning "warfare". There were probably about 5 million deaths among residents of traditionally Orthodox nations (Russia, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria). Romania and Serbia had a particularly large number of deaths as a portion of the population.

Orthodox Christian nationals made up 1/3 of the total deaths.

Cumulative total: up to 7.25 million

4) Communist revolutions(1918 and later): Serfes clearly dislikes the Bolsheviks for their anti-religious policies. Perhaps one or two million deaths can be attributed to these wars.

"First in Russia and Ukraine, then in Eastern Europe, in Greece during its civil war (1945-49), and in Ethiopia, the Orthodox Church was the principle target for attach, subversion, or destruction."

I don't know that a specific number of deaths can be attributed to specifically anti-religious activities, especially since the church was tightly aligned with the monarchy during these wars.

Cumulative total: up to 9.25 million

4) The Ukranian Famine (1932-1933): This is perhaps the cornerstone of Serfes' tally. He reports 7-12 million deaths due to hostility from the Soviet Union; the encyclopedia Brittanica reports 4-5 million. The Rutgers Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights reports 10 million. The Ukrainian law regarding the "Holodomor" does not provide a number, but a website specifically dedicated to the Holodomor tallies 5.5 million (4 million from starvation; 1.5 million from dekulakization campaigns). In general, I do not see serious estimates over 10 million, so that's the value I'll use.

Cumulative total: up to 19.25 million

5) World War II (1939-1945): Again, Serfes hardly mentions WWII, but this surly is the bulk of the 50 million deaths that he counts. The traditionally orthodox nations suffered up to 30 million deaths during the war, almost all of them being from the Soviet Union, at the hands of Nazi Germany and their fascist allies -- including Bulgeria and Romania. Other sources gave slightly lower estimates.

Overall, deaths among Orthodox Christian Nationalities accounted for about 1/3 of the deaths in WWII (other major contributors were China, Poland, and Germany)

Cumulative total: up to 49.5 million

But does it mean anything?

When this question was posted, I objected that it was a bad question and little more than political propaganda. This tally is from a number of essentially unrelated events, and grouping them together only makes sense in the context of some theory that links them. What are those possible theories?

1) Orthodox Christians are a community, and members of a community should recognize the suffering that occurred within it. I could respect this theory, but unfortunately this does not seem to be the theory that Serfes is promoting.

2) These deaths are part of a larger trend of oppression of Orthodox Christians. This appears to be Serfes' agenda, and it is dangerous bullshit. This theory has two components: first, that Orthodox Christians were treated especially brutally by other communities; second, that other communities continue to minimize and ignore the suffering done to Orthodox community. I say that this theory is bullshit because neither of those claims are true. I say that the theory is dangerous because Serfes' presentation comes very close to minimizing the suffering of other communities (e.g. Jews) and excusing abuses committed by Orthodox Christians.

Orthodox Christians were not singled out for abuse (mostly)

Under the USSR

The primary culprit in these deaths is the Soviet Union (through enslavement, political terrorism, wars of aggression, and general economic/military incompetence). The Soviet government exploited and terrorized all populations in its territory. It attacked any group that offered an alternative to the USSR -- whether Orthodox, Catholic, Muslim, or secular. It did not single out Orthodox Christians; if that group made up the largest portion of its victims, its simply because the USSR emerged from an Orthodox Christian society.

Serfes' thesis of Orthodox oppression relies on the perception that all of these hardships came at the hands of "outsiders". The Soviet Union should not be viewed as an outside group oppressing a Eastern Orthodox nation -- the Bolshivik movement was a home-grown Russian political movement. Serfes wrote his essay before Putin came to power, but I wonder what he thinks of Putin's redefining Russian identity in a way that embraces the Orthodox Church at the same time it claims the glory of the USSR (especially with respect to Ukraine). Even Western communists have rejected the Soviet Union for over half a century. The current crisis in Ukraine reveals that many Ukrainians see their oppression under the USSR as being a nationalist issue as much as a ideological/religious one.

Finally, there is not enough space here to list all of the groups that were targeted by the Soviet state (many different nationalities and ideologies). One particularly relevant group is the Crimean Tartars, a Muslim population that suffered the Holodomor along with their Orthodox Christian neighbors. After WWII, the Tartars suffered mass deportation to Siberia, during which a huge portion of their population died.

Nazi Germany

The secondary culprit in these deaths is Nazi Germany, through its invasion of Eastern Europe and genocidal policies towards various populations. The policy of "Lebensraum" (living space for Aryans) was particularly destructive towards the people of Eastern Europe. The Nazis had a special disdain for the Slavic people to their east, and were more tolerant of the Germanic and Latin peoples to their west (though the French were effectively enslaved like everyone else). The hostility towards Slavs manifested as genocidal plans that would have substantially reduced the eastern populations -- particularly the Catholic Poles and Lithuanians. The Orthodox Christian nationalities (particularly Ukrainians) were definitely harmed by these policies, but they were not singled out. The Nazis even had two Orthodox nations (with Orthodox Christian leaders) as allies -- Romania and Bulgaria.

Turkey

This is the one situation in Europe where it appears that Christians were specifically marginalized and massacred. Turkey obviously still has a lot of problems with its institutions. I think Serfes exaggerates the influence that the USA has over Turkey. Sill, Christian nationalities were not the only victims of Turkish nationalism -- the Kurds have a long history of conflict with the Turkish state.

Orthodox Christians as Assailants

The last set of events to consider are those where Orthodox Christians were the assailants. My purpose in bringing this up is to show that this region of the world was generally unstable and violent during the last century. I don't mean to imply that the Orthodox Christians were particularly aggressive or that they (as a community) deserved any of the suffering that Serfes listed.

First, there is the issue of whether to count home-grown communist movements as "Orthodox Christian". I've discussed that above and will leave communist aggression out of this count. I'll also leave out anti-Semitism. Here are the events I can think of:

  1. Balkan wars: massacres of Albanian Muslims and exile of Ottoman muslims.
  2. Russo-Ottoman wars: Ethnic cleansing of areas conquered by Russia.
  3. Breakup of Yugoslavia: Ethnic cleansing by Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
  4. Russian suppression of Chechen Independence and the destruction of Grozny.

This is what makes Serfes' diatribe particularly dangerous. Orthodox Christians are the dominant community in many countries (such as Russia), which makes this narrative of oppression both absurd and dangerous. Serfes even goes as far as to suggest that "Christians" should always give the benefit of the doubt to other Christians (e.g. Serbia) in their conflicts with non-Christians, and likewise to suggest that the American government should not press Christian nations (such as Russia) to increase religious freedom until non-Christian allies (e.g. Turkey) have instituted full religious freedom. This is a recipe for tyranny and a continuation of these ancient blood feuds.

Random notes

The Ukrainian famine is a major item in this list, and I want to provide a little more context. First, other sources disagree with Serfes contention that the famine of 1932-33 was limited to Ukraine. The Brittanica article estimates that 1/3 of the victims were outside of Ukraine (though it's unclear if that includes Crimea, which was part of Russia at the time). Wikipedia has more information.

I'll also note the similarities between the Ukranian famine and the Great Irish Famine and the Great Chinese Famine. Briefly, all involved an element of enslavement and exploitation, where a food producing country continued to export food while its residents suffered starvation and were prevented from growing food for themselves. Like the Ukrainian famine, the Great Irish Famine also involved a power relationship between nations (England/Ireland; Russia/Ukraine). The Chinese Famine is similar to the Ukrainian famine in its connection to Stalinist collectivization and the use of starvation to destroy traditionalist communities and punish political opponents.

Finally, the Holodomor is only comparable to the Nazi campaign against the Jews in that both were horrible. Most notably, the USSR sought to break the resistance of the Ukrainian community, not to kill every single one of them. In the context of Serfes' thesis, this comparison of Orthodox community's trauma to the Nazi genocide against the Jews implies that the only reason for popular concern with anti-Semitism is the political influence of Jews. I hope that's not what he means to imply, since the history of Jewish marginalization and persecution in Western society is very different from the trauma experienced by Orthodox Christians in Western society.

  • You are welcome. This topic is quite timely given the events in Ukraine. – adam.r Mar 30 '14 at 10:33
  • Indeed it is! And it helps give some perspective on the worldview some are approaching it with, particularly in eastern Ukraine. – Dan Mar 30 '14 at 14:37
  • "Russian suppression of Chechen Independence and the destruction of Grozny." - this is out of place in your list. While other events are "ethnic cleansing" and clearly target ethnic groups, this one hardly can be classified as genocide against Chechen people only because vast majority of population in Chechnya is Chechen. – sashkello Apr 1 '14 at 23:01
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    @sashkello: The list is not meant to be limited to genocide. Much of the violence against Orthodox Christians was not genocidal. WWI was not genocidal. The Communist revolutions were not. Even a chunk of the Nazi-caused deaths should be counted as battlefield deaths or War Crimes (rather than genocide). The assault on Grozny may be no worse than what Sherman did in the US Civil War. I've changed the label to "assailant" rather than "aggressor", to make it a little more neutral. – adam.r Apr 3 '14 at 5:05
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    Additional reference material for Poland, Ukraine, Belarussia and the Balkans: Timothy Snyder - Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. He has done extensive research into the actual numbers. – user22865 Oct 30 '15 at 12:26
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I'm romanian so I have a bit of knowledge on the subject. The problem is more complex in Romania but not limited to the 20'th century.

Before the unification of the country orthodox christians in the Transylvania region(north-west) were forced to accept the catholic religion, but were allowed to keep the rituals and were called greek-catholic or "united with Rome", many were killed and many churches destroyed by the hungarians.

In the Wallachia region(south) and Moldova region(east) the turks and the ottomans killed many and forced some to adopt islam, young children had to be "paid" yearly as tribute and converted to islam to fight for the turks and the ottomans.

Communism was introduced by force by the russians with the help of some crazy people of different ethnic origin, but some of which were jewish from Russia (Ana Pauker, etc.). The first communist wave until 1965 targeted intellectuals, important religious people or anyone who didn't support communism. Unlike other parts of the world many intellectuals in Romania were also important religious people promoting movements such as "Rugul Aprins"/"The Burning Bush". There is a lot to write about the subject and you can find out more from different sources if you have the time because new information is being published as more political figures die of old age and there is less presure to keep the horrors hidden.

I talked to people that are still alive, one such person was a colleague of mine and he was of adventist christian faith. When the security brought him for interrogation because he wouldn't work on Saturday, he told me that he had to move to another city after they told him things and asked questions that made him cry like a baby. This was in the second wave of communism when they decided that it's too expensive to fill prisons with people that could work and killing them might cause an international scandal. Ceausescu wanted to have good economic relations with most countries.

So many millions died either because they were important religious people or intellectuals but usually both. If you were an atheist you could more easily do what they wanted and they didn't ask you to give up your faith because you had none. I think the same people that killed the jews also promoted communism and communism was a jewish ideea but promoted by the atheist jews which couldn't openly kill their own people for being religious.

To me it's not Europe against the jews or against other nations. It's the stronger against the weak, the criminals against the innocent, the wolf in sheep's clothing against the sheep.

At least in the 20'th century Romania most people were eastern orthodox christians and quite peaceful people so they couldn't stand against communism. Today most romanians still declare themselves as orthodox christians but not all of them are religious or peaceful as their grandparents were.

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    Welcome to the site! We are not looking for answers based on personal experience or expertise, but only for answers based on external evidence as presented by reputable resources. Can you reword your answer so it represent the currently accepted evidence in the field and link to it? – Sklivvz Oct 30 '15 at 11:52
  • "Communism was a Jewish idea but promoted by the atheist Jews which couldn't openly kill their own people for being religious." Well, Communism did appeal to a lot of Jews in the 1800s and 1900s, not least because Karl Marx was of Jewish descent, but by the time it made it to the Soviet Union, it was mainly adopted by (former) Christians. Most importantly, many Jews were killed under Communism. And personally, I wouldn't call someone Jewish if they were a proper atheist Communist, but I understand what you're saying. – Obie 2.0 Jun 10 '18 at 23:42

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