Last week, the Eastern Orthodox Church, a communion of 14 autocephalous, national churches with roots in the Byzantine Christian tradition, concluded an historic synod on the island of Crete. Decades in the planning, the Pan-Orthodox Council, known officially as the Holy and Great Council, was meant to gather patriarchs from all 14 churches for deliberation on a series of issues in contemporary church life, including marriage, fasting, the Orthodox “Diaspora,” and relations with non-Orthodox Christians. At the last minute, four national churches, including the largest, the Russian Orthodox Church, declined to attend—a fact that, notwithstanding the protests of the Council’s supporters, seems as a practical matter to undercut the Council’s significance. Nonetheless, the Council is noteworthy for what it had to say on several topics, including the persecution of Mideast Christians and human rights in general. On the latter, the Council’s documents reveal, once again, important differences from the consensus understanding in the West.

First, though, a word about the churches that stayed away. From what I can tell, most (but not all) of these churches demurred in part because of concerns about what the Council might say about relations with other Christians. Ecumenism occasions much dispute within the Eastern Orthodox Church. Some, especially in monastic communities, believe that ecumenism implies that Orthodoxy has abandoned its claim to represent the one true church. Even referring to non-Orthodox Christians as “churches” can cause controversy.

In its declaration, “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” the Council adopted (with all respect) a rather lawyerly solution. Yes, the document indicates, there is only one true church, and that is the Eastern Orthodox Church. But “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her and believes that her relations with them should be based on the most speedy and objective clarification possible of the whole ecclesiological question.” In other words, the Council accepts that, historically, other Christian communions have been called “churches” (some of them, even, have been called “Orthodox Churches”!) and will work to clarify the situation. It’s an irenic statement. We’ll see how it is received, especially by those within the Orthodox fold who do not think clarification necessary.

Notwithstanding this hedging on the “ecclesiological question,” the Council did go out of its way to decry the persecution of Christians, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, in the Mideast today. In fact, it condemned the persecution of other religious minorities in the Mideast as well. The encyclical issued at the conclusion of the Council states, “The Orthodox Church is particularly concerned about the situation facing Christians, and other persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East. In particular, she addresses an appeal to governments in that region to protect the Christian populations—Orthodox, Ancient Eastern and other Christians—who have survived in the cradle of Christianity. The indigenous Christian and other populations enjoy the inalienable right to remain in their countries as citizens with equal rights.” The Council refers to two Christian bishops, one Eastern and the other Oriental Orthodox, who were abducted two years in Syria and whose whereabouts are still unknown.

The Council’s official documents also speak about human rights generally—demonstrating, once again, how important the idiom is in contemporary debate. Today, everyone from secular lawyers to church patriarchs declares a commitment to the ideal of “human rights,” based in the concept of “human dignity.” It is the price of admission to polite discussion. But the Council’s documents reveal, once again, how differently people understand those terms. In today’s human rights discourse, people use the same words but mean very different things.

The Council’s official documents are not always easy to follow, but, taken together, they stand for these propositions: Human dignity derives from the fact of divine creation; human freedom, correctly understood, is the freedom to progress toward spiritual perfection in Christ; and a secular understanding of human rights, which promotes subjective individualism and a disregard of Christian tradition, is a grave mistake. None of these propositions, especially the last, would receive the support of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council. Like the Russian Orthodox Church’s 2008 statement on human rights, the Council’s documents offer an alternative model, a challenge to the subjective, more or less secular understanding of human rights that most in the West take for granted today.

The Council’s treatment of religious liberty, in particular, reveals this disagreement. True, the Council says it endorses the “fundamental human right of religious freedom in all its aspects.” Yet when one probes deeper, one sees a profound challenge to the typical understanding of religious freedom in the West. For example, most Western human rights advocates, even from Christian traditions, would say that religious freedom requires state religious neutrality. At a minimum, the state cannot unfairly promote one religious group or viewpoint over another—by forbidding proselytism, for example.

For its part, the Council insists on the distinction between church and state. But it does not endorse separation. Instead it calls on “local,” that is, national, Orthodox Churches to promote a “new constructive synergy” with the secular state, in order to ensure “earnest cooperation in order to preserve man's unique dignity and the human rights which flow therefrom.” These statements are not entirely clear, but they imply a rather closer relationship between church and state than many Western human rights advocates would find comfortable. Close cooperation to promote human dignity—a dignity understood in expressly Christian terms—is not what most Western human rights advocates envision when they think about church-state relations.

Moreover, the Council’s documents contain a significant omission with respect to the right to convert. Whether religious liberty includes the right to change one’s religion is one of the most debated topics in international human rights law today. Most human rights advocates maintain that such a right exists; the Universal Declaration on Human Rights expressly refers to it. But the language of international human rights treaties is not entirely clear. Many states, including many Muslim-majority states, resist the idea that one has a right to change one’s religion; and many states, not all of them Muslim-majority, restrict proselytism. Russia comes to mind.

The Council doesn’t expressly take a position on the question, but its descriptions of what religious liberty means conspicuously omit any reference to the right to convert. Here’s one example, from the Council’s closing encyclical:

A fundamental human right is the protection of the principle of religious freedom in all its aspects—namely, the freedom of conscience, belief, and religion, including, alone and in community, in private and in public, the right to freedom of worship and practice, the right to manifest one's religion, as well as the right of religious communities to religious education and to the full function and exercise of their religious duties, without any form of direct or indirect interference by the state.

It’s hard to imagine that the omission was accidental. The Council’s closing “Message” likewise omits a reference to the right to convert. At the very least, the omission signals that the Council is not comfortable with saying that a right to convert exists—a position that, again, places the Council at odds with the secular human-rights consensus and, indeed, with the current position of the Catholic Church.

The Council’s official statements join a list of human rights declarations by religious bodies, all of which conceive of dignity and rights in ways that differ from the standard Western versions. What effect the Council’s statements will have, including within Orthodoxy, remains to be seen. The documents now go to the local Orthodox Churches, including those that declined to attend, for consideration. The synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, for example, plans to take up the Council’s work at its next scheduled meeting, this month. Whatever their long-term significance, the documents reveal yet again that, when it comes to issues like human rights and religious freedom, it’s worth looking behind the slogans. Surface agreement on terms may mask a profound disagreement on underlying concepts.

Mark L. Movsesian co-directs the Tradition Project at the St. John’s Center for Law and Religion.

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