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Example of Orthodox iconography: Jesus Christ Pantocrator (detail from the Deesis mosaic in Hagia Sophia, İstanbul, formerly Constantinople).

This page is about Eastern Christianity.

Eastern Orthodoxy or historically Orthodox Catholicism

One of the two Churches resulting from the 11th century Great Schism of the Christian Church between The Low Middle Ages and The High Middle Ages, the other being the Roman Catholic Church. The schism developed gradually. For several centuries before the formal break, contact had been intermittent between the Eastern and Western churches, with each pretty much running its own show. As a result, when the schism occurred, each side could honestly believe "we never changed, they left us". The "Great Schism" is generally dated from when a Papal legate and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other in 1054, but it had been a long time coming. It was also a long time going; at the time, hardly anybody recognized the schism of 1054 as anything other than a temporary political and jurisdictional brouhaha. Notably, when Emperor Alexios I Komnenos wrote to Pope Urban II asking for Western help against the Turks in Anatolia and the Levant a little over 50 years after the alleged "Great Schism", neither side saw this as anything other than a request to defend the one universal Church against a newly powerful enemy.note  It wasn't until well into the 13th or even 14th century that the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches really began to see themselves as wholly separate institutions. Ordinary Christians on both sides generally didn't get the memo until after Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Go to the Other Wiki if you want all the gory details.

No Pope (one of the main reasons for the split, and the biggest obstacle to reunification in the present). The church is instead led by several Patriarchs, each responsible for a different region. Kirill I is the current Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, by far the largest church, but the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (currently Bartholomew I) is considered "first among equals" (the fancy technical term for this setup is "autocephaly", literally "self-headedness" in Greek). Since 2018, the Russian Orthodox Church and Ecumenical Patriarchate are not on speaking terms because of a dispute about the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church. The other churches are split on the issue and mostly uncomfortable with the tension (which has political implications given the oppositional stance Vladimir Putin's Russia has with much of Europe, especially after Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022 with the full religious support of Kirill).note 

Married men can become priests, and priests' wives are important in the church. (Meanwhile, priests' children are reputed throughout Eastern Christendom to be spoiled brats.)note  Please note: while a married man might become a priest, a priest may not marry. Thus, while a married man can continue to live with and have marital relations with his wife (subject to fasting restrictions), he cannot take a wife after he has been ordained, regardless of whether or not he was married when ordained. (The same rules apply to Catholic deacons and the rare instances of married Latin Rite Catholic priests.) As a result, many men on a clerical career remain deacons for extended periods while trying to find a wife so they can marry and then take their priestly vows (or get frustrated in their search and then take their priestly vows). Also, higher-level clergy—bishops, archbishops, and patriarchs—must be celibate. Consequently, Orthodox hierarchs tend to have started their careers as monks rather than parish priests, though parish priests who never married and widowed parish priests can also advance up the ladder (though the latter are rare).

Some jurisdictions, notably in Russia, Ukraine, and Serbia, follow a different calendar from the Catholic church (the Julian calendar, originated in Ancient Rome, which is considered the "holy calendar"), thus Christmas takes place January 7th. Others, such as Greece, Romania, and Constantinople itself, use a Revised Julian calendar that is almost exactly the same as the secular calendar (but will diverge at some point in the future), so they celebrate Christmas on December 25th. However, almost all of those churches still calculate Easter and related holidays according to the old calendar (yes, it's complicated). Easter ("Paskha") can be up to several weeks after Catholic Easter—or it can be on the very same day. This derives both from the difference in calendar and by being determined by a different method. note 

The look-and-feel of the religion is very similar to Catholicism, much more so than to Protestantism (pace the High Church forms of Anglicanism and Lutheranism): there are bishops, monks, nuns, saints and other pre-Reformational trappings. Church services have lots of chanting, vestment colors that rotate between Gold, White, Green, Red, Purple, Blue, and Black. Incense, and candles. But the liturgical languages are Greek, Old Church Slavonic or the national language of the country the particular Church is from (e.g., Japanese in Japan, English in the US, etc.) and the spirituality is decidedly more "Eastern" than Western churches (see Hesychasm for an example). Orthodox Christians make the sign of the cross up-down-right-left, whereas Catholics go up-down-left-right. In some spy stories, a Westerner might give himself away by crossing himself the wrong way while saying grace. That said, this isn't a hard-and-fast rule; Byzantine-rite Eastern Catholics (particularly members of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic and Ruthenian Greek Catholic Churches) in full communion with Rome also go up-down-right-left.note 

While there are monks and nuns much like in the Catholic church, you might not recognize them. Monks usually wear black robes and have very long, and sometimes unkempt, beards and hair (taking too much care of your appearance is seen as earthly vanity). Think "hippie" or "hermit" instead of "Friar Tuck". And nuns are usually draped head-to-toe in black, with their heads covered. On first glance, you're likely to think you're looking at a traditional Muslim woman—not helped that their head coverings are frequently basically the same as certain kinds of hijab from a purely "how is this garment shaped" perspective. In fact, applying veils during prayer is quite common among Orthodox women, as this is seen as reflecting traditions of the Apostolic Age (or emulating Virgin Mary, who is always depicted wearing veils in icons). Catholicism used to adhere to this requirement as well until sometime after World War II, but there are places where it still sticks if you look hard enough.

This religion has strong historical ties to the Eastern Roman Empire, which is why a good deal of the religion is centered on historically Greek areas (Alexandria, in Egypt, for instance), and beyond Russia the religion is predominant in much of the Balkans including Greece.

During the Soviet period, the attitude of the Communist authorities towards religion was hostile, and the Soviet government attempted to promote atheism among the populace and stamp out religion. The Russian Orthodox Church went through various periods of repression ranging from severe persecution to relative toleration, but even at its best it was taken for granted that all Orthodox clergy were either informers to the KGB, actually KGB agents themselves, or under KGB supervision, with some calling the Orthodox Church practically a department of the KGB. At its worst, tens of thousands of churches and monasteries were closed or demolished and tens of thousands of clergy were arrested, exiled, or executed. Famously, the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow, one of the largest in the world, was dynamited to make way for a Soviet mega-project. When the project failed to materialize, the footprint of the former cathedral was converted into the world's largest open-air swimming pool.

Nevertheless, Orthodoxy was never eliminated entirely, and Orthodox Christianity is very influential in modern Russia (and still has strong ties with the government, as it has always done historically). This causes controversies not unlike the American debates of creationism vs. evolution and pro-life vs. pro-abortion, with the church firmly standing on the former side. It is also heavily in opposition to the LGBT rights cause. Other than Russia, countries with majority Orthodox believers are generally more devout and religious than their Catholic (and especially Protestant) counterparts, particularly in Greece, Georgia, and Romania. Considering that most of these same countries are also the same area where Communism holds or used to hold sway, this is saying a lot (possibly it's partly due to a backlash against the religious suppression in former Communist countries).

Eastern Catholicism
There are also "Eastern Catholic" churches, which look and smell like Orthodox churches, and have many Orthodox practices (including even married priestsnote ), but are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church and accept the Pope's authority (and thus run on the Gregorian calendar and celebrate festivals on the Catholic dates, usuallynote ). These churches make up 23 of the 24 churches that make up Catholicism—one of these is the Roman, the church usually considered the Catholic Church in most of the world—although most of the 23 non-Roman Catholic Churches are quite small. Otherwise, however, the ritual is entirely Eastern (including the way of signing the Cross). The Ukrainian Catholic Church is one of the largest and best known of these,note  while the Syriac Maronite Church takes pride in being the only Eastern Catholic church that has an unbroken connection with the Pope since the formation of Christianity itself.note  Some older literature might call these Eastern Catholic churches "Byzantine Catholic" or "Uniate". The latter term is generally considered offensive, while the former is merely considered archaic and sometimes inaccurate (as most but not all Eastern Catholic churches use the Byzantine Rite). While there are in fact more Eastern Catholic Arabs (or Arabic-speakers, at any rate) than Ukrainians, they are split among several groups: In Levant alone, there are Syriacs (counterpart to Oriental Orthodox Syriac Church in the Levant) and Melkites (counterpart to Eastern Orthodox Church in the Levant), in addition to the Maronites (who don't have an Orthodox counterpart).note  Plus, most of the Armenian Catholic Church's followers are actually in the Middle East rather than Armenia itself (their mother church is in Beirut, along with the mother churches of the Melkites and Maronites, for example) note  and the followers of the Egyptian Coptic Catholic Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church (whose mother church is in Baghdad, Iraq) usually don't consider themselves Arabs although they are mostly Arabic-speaking.

Oriental Orthodoxy
A communion of Churches who consider themselves Orthodox and differ from the Eastern Orthodox because of their Christology (i.e. their beliefs about the nature of Jesus Christ). They are also known as the non-Chalcedonian churches, as they reject the Christological dogma promulgated by the Council of Chalcedon (about which see more below). These churches are the Coptic (i.e. Egyptian), Armenian, Syriac, Ethiopian, Eritrean and Indian churches. The largest of these is the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, currently headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias.

Today, Ethiopia is both the world's largest Oriental Orthodox-majority country and the home to the largest single population of Oriental Orthodox believers. Armenia and Eritrea are next, but confusingly so: On one hand, Armenia has a larger proportion of Oriental Orthodox (over 90%, vs. Eritrea's 50%ish); but Eritrea's population is about twice Armenia's (6 million vs. 3 million); but there's at least about 6 million Armenians in diaspora, making the balance much closer. Egypt, historic home of Oriental Orthodoxy, retains a large Coptic Oriental Orthodox minority, numbering in the millions. Exactly how many remain in Egypt is unclear, with estimates ranging from as low as 2 million to as much as 20 million (out of a total Egyptian population of 100 million); it doesn't help here that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Egyptian Christians have emigrated over the past 50 years to all parts of the world (but mostly Michigan, California, and New Jersey). The Coptic Orthodox Church also numbers an additional half-million or so in Sudan, which was itself majority Oriental Orthodox until about the 16th century.

Much as the Eastern Orthodox churches are in full communion with each other and recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople as first among equals, the Oriental churches are also in full communion with each other and recognize the Patriarch of Alexandria (who resides in Cairo these days, confusingly enough) as first among equals. His position is officially called Pope ("Papa" in Coptic, "Baba" in the Egyptian Arabic Copts actually speak these days); this is probably where the confusion in the minds of non-Orthodox as to how Orthodoxy has its own Pope arose. In fact, as explained above, the Patriarchs lead the Eastern churches (except for the Catholics), with one being designated as the first among equals, while the Pope is merely a fancy term that is traditionally used by claimants of the patriarch of the Alexandrian church. Yes, there are other "popes", as well; the Alexandrian Greek Orthodox community use it for their own leaders, though understandably translated as patriarchs to match their equivalents in other communities.

The current Coptic Pope of Alexandria, Tawadros II, was selected on 4 November 2012 by a process involving a series of consultations among Coptic clergy and laity to narrow the field down to three candidates, after which the Pope is chosen by literally having a blindfolded child pull one of the three's name out of a hat (or some other vessel).note  The previous Pope, Shenouda III, died in March 2012. He had gained accolades for his campaigns for Christian unity but also caught a bit of flack (though not too much) for backing the wrong side in the early days of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011 (it was understandable—it wasn't immediately clear that the rights of Christians would be respected; Coptic revolutionaries were nevertheless understandably pissed off at their Pope for a while).

Coptic Christology holds a doctrine concerning Christ called Miaphysitism, which says that Jesus Christ has one incarnate nature that is both fully human and fully divine. Meanwhile, Chalcedonian Christianity (held by the majority of Christians) holds that Jesus has two natures, fully human and fully divine, that exist in one perfect union. It can be difficult to see how exactly these definitions differ, but when the split occurred Christology was Serious Business, and supporters did not hesitate to anathematize, condemn, and sometimes kill their opponents on the other side. Politics, as always, played a role, and it was common to support a theological position for political reasons. There was also geographic rivalry between various theological centers based at Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople. The Pope got involved, the Roman Emperor got involved - it was a whole thing.

Today, the difference between these conceptions of Christ (particularly in the face of Protestantism) can appear the work of miserable hairsplitters. Recently the leaders of the Coptic and Catholic Churches have stated that both definitions are merely two different ways of saying the same thing. Some at the time of the original Monophysite Controversy — when miaphysitism was first proposed as a compromise between hardline monophysitism and the Chalcedonian line — realized this, but by that point the battle lines were so entrenched that nobody was willing to listen. There is hope for a reconciliation, but considering the declarations recommending restoring communion were made in 1990 and no formal restoration has been forthcoming, one shouldn't hold one's breath.

Church of the East
Other than the Orthodox churches, Eastern Christianity also has a couple of denominations descended from the Church of the East, an ancient Christian branch that adopted the teachings of Nestorius, an archbishop of Constantinople who was condemned during the Council of Ephesus (431 AD) for yet another Christological issue, namely that Mary, mother of Jesus, was not the Mother of God (Theotokos), because in his opinion, God as an eternal being, could not have been born. A few churches did not find his condemnation lawful and were subsequently excommunicated and branded by the rest of the Christendom as followers of Nestorianism. This was twenty years before the Oriental Orthodox Churches were excommunicated during the Council of Chalcedon.

For most of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Church of the East was quite influential in Asia. It was the officially-sanctioned Christian denomination in the Sassanid Empire, who was wary of the influence of the Pope in their empire (as he resided in the territory of their archenemy, the Byzantines), therefore only deciding to accept Christianity after being assured that the Church of the East had severed their connection with the the Western Christian world. It proselytized as far as China and Mongolia and for a while was the largest Christian church by area of penetration.

However, the church entered a period of decline after the nomadic invasions of the Mongols and Turks from the 13th century onward, particularly during the reign of Timur the Lame, who was blamed for the complete destruction of the Church of the East everywhere except for the Middle East and India. In 1552, a schism occurred that marked the end of the original Church of the East, when some followers decided to rejoin Catholicism, still maintaining the East Syriac Rite but accepting the Catholic Pope as their leader. Those who remained separate rebranded as the Assyrian Church of the East.

The church today comprises two separate denominations that split in 1964. The first is the Assyrian Church of the East, currently led by Patriarch Gewargis III and based in Erbil, Iraq. It claims over 400,000 followers spread over the Middle East and the Assyrian diaspora, and also maintains jurisdiction over the Chaldean Syrian Church, the denomination's archbishopric in India. The second, and much smaller one, is the Ancient Church of the East, currently led by Patriarch Addai II and based in Baghdad. The reason for their split is because of the reforms adopted by the Assyrian Church, such as the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar (so the Assyrian Church celebrates Christmas on December 25th, while the Ancient Church does so on January 7th).


Dvoeveriye (Russian for "Dual Faith") are semi-pagan old Russian syncretic mystery cults which formed after the forced Christianization of Kievan Rus in the 9th and 10th centuries. In these cults, old pagan gods from Slavic Mythology were worshipped under names of Christian saints. For example, Perun, the god of thunder, was renamed into Elijah the Prophet (Ilya Prorok), and Veles, the god of the underworld, wealth and cattle, was worshipped as St. Blaise (Svyatoy Vlasiy). Dvoyeveriye cults were very pervasive and popular among peasants who didn't understand proper Christian theology; some rudiments of them remain even now in the Russian folk-Christianity. The page Slavic Mythology has more information on what god hid under what saint's name.

Starovery, or the Old Believers

The Old Believers are a number of Russian Orthodox Christian sects that started in the 17th century after a particularly ill-understood religious reform by Patriarch Nikon. Further information about these reforms can be found in other places, but to summarize, there are several differences that make the Russian Orthodox Church stand apart from their Greek brethren. Nikon saw these as unnecessary and obscene additions to what he considered the purity of the Greek Orthodox Church, which holds primacy by virtue of its age, so he decided to "purify" the church by removing what he saw as innovations to conform more with the Greeks.

On their own, the reforms seemed fairly trivial. Several spellings were slightly changed, and minor details of worship and the liturgy were altered. However, it was the way in which these reforms were enforced that turned many against them. Old churches, considered to be built in a more Russian style, were mercilessly demolished to be rebuilt along more "Greek" lines. Icons considered to be infected with western, Catholic influences were desecrated and destroyed. Any who spoke out or disagreed risked severe punishment.

Ironically, it would later turn out that while the Russian and Greek churches had indeed naturally developed along slightly different lines, many of the Russian practices were actually older than the "pure" Greek liturgy Nikon was trying to impose. Due to its relative isolation, the Russian Orthodox Church retained many quirks and practices the Greek Church had long since discarded, and it was actually the Greeks who had undergone more revisions and innovations over the centuries.

Too little too late, unfortunately. Nikon eventually lost favour and was deposed, largely due to his attempts to get the Orthodox Church out from under the thumb of the Tsars. Even though Nikon was condemned, his reforms held on and continued to be promoted by the Tsar and the church authorities. Those who remained adamant in their conviction, mostly ultra-conservative and reclusive, formed communities in Siberia and other remote areas of Russia, and some of them moved then far outside it, similar to the American Mormon or Mennonite communities. Many of them still exist to this day, as yet another parallel to the Mormons and Mennonites—in particular, to fundamentalist splinter sects under the Mormon umbrella (as opposed to the mainline LDS Church to which most Mormons belong) and to plain people (who include some Mennonites and the closely related Amish among their ranks), respectively.

Depictions in media

Comic Books

  • Vera's family in Be Prepared is Russian Orthodox and attend a Russian church. When she goes to summer camp, church is held there as well—outdoors, every Sunday, rain or shine.


  • The Soviet Union was antagonistic towards Russian Orthodox Christianity, seeing it as a tool of oppression ("the opiate of the masses"). Thus Russian Orthodox priests are depicted as being against the revolution and antagonistic to the workers in Soviet films such as Earth (1930) and The Battleship Potemkin. Never mind that the actual position of the Church was more complicated, especially during the 1905 revolution Battleship Potemkin depicts (to wit, the 1905 revolution was arguably started by an Orthodox cleric, Fr. Georgy Gapon). However, after the Nazis invaded in 1941, a lot of the antagonism went out the window as Stalin used every tool at his disposal to fight the invaders. Persecution of the Church after the war fluctuated; Khrushchev went for it in a big way, but Brezhnev and his successors deprioritized it.
  • The Deer Hunter depicts a Pennsylvania steel town that is so heavily Russian Orthodox that they have a church with onion domes. The opening scenes of the movie show a Russian Orthodox wedding ceremony.
  • In Don Camillo in Moscow, the eponymous Catholic Italian priest accompanies the communist mayor of his village to a village in the Russian SSR while disguising the fact that he's a priest. Once there Camillo meets a local Orthodox priest (who doesn't preach anymore) and finds out that the village's church has basically been turned into a farm. Camillo then motivates the Orthodox priest into reviving the church and religion practice in the village.
  • Ivan the Terrible starts with the lavish religious crowning of the eponymous Tsar of Russia. The Church's authorities are not quite happy when he immediately goes on a New Era Speech about everyone financially contributing to the expansion of Russia's military to make the country stronger.
  • In Loveless (set in 2010s Russia), Boris' unseen boss is a Russian Orthodox fundamentalist who sports a beard, only employs baptized Orthodox people, takes his employees on pilgrimages instead of more "fun" holidays and fires them as soon as he learns that they're divorced. That last part makes Boris quite nervous, as he's precisely in the middle of a divorce with Zhenya.
  • My Big Fat Greek Wedding shows a Greek Orthodox baptism and (naturally) a wedding ceremony. The ceremonies are depicted inaccurately. (Of course, everybody—especially actual Greek-American Orthodox Christians—let all of this go because it’s funny.) Significantly, Nia Vardalos, who wrote the script (in addition to playing Toula), is Greek Orthodox and based the whole plot on her own relationship with and wedding to Ian Gomez (who was raised Jewish rather than Protestant but whatever).
    • Ian's baptism involves a kiddie pool in the middle of church. In real life, most Orthodox churches without adult-size baptismal fonts can find a more dignified substitute, such as a stock tank (a tank normally used to offer drinking water to livestock), or even use an outdoor body of water. Ian jokes that he's "Greek now."
    • Also, in real life, he would not have been baptized without a period of catechesis. That said, the timeline of the movie is vague enough that it’s possible that was just skipped over, perhaps because they couldn’t find a way to make it funny.
    • Orthodox weddings do not traditionally involve the Mendelssohn wedding march, and there is generally not a bridal entrance: the bride and groom walk down the aisle together after the betrothal ceremony at the entrance.
    • Most Orthodox churches in Western countries are willing to use the primary local language at least part of the time. It would be a rare church that would insist on the service being totally in Greek, when participants and family members would not understand what is going on. At the very least, a translated service text would be provided. Of course, this especially would be ignored because having it all literally be Greek to Ian and his family is really funny.
  • Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit shows a few (ostensibly) Russian Orthodox Christians and churches, paying little heed to accuracy.
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade introduces us to the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, a fictional Aramaic-speaking Church Militant order tasked with protecting the secret of the Holy Grail's location.


  • Vampire Academy heavily features Orthodox Christianity as part of its lore, as it's the dominant religion of the Moroi world, which is based in Eastern Europe.
  • The thriller Victoria features a Russian Orthodox priest, Father Dimitri, as one of its supporting characters.
  • David Sedaris's (mostly) autobiographical stories about his childhood and adolescence frequently mention his family's attendance at—if not exactly adherence to—the Greek Orthodox parish in Raleigh. He also mentions the ways being Orthodox made their existence in the rapidly-transforming-but-still-basically-Southern North Carolina of the 1960s and 70s (a place and time where, if Catholics were Martians, the Orthodox were from Alpha Centauri) rather awkward.

Live-Action TV

  • In Seinfeld, George Costanza once converted to "Latvian Orthodoxy"note  so he could stay with his girlfriend. (It doesn't last, but the gang's interactions with the church puts a name to Kramer's "kavorka".)

Video Games

  • The PSP remake of Tactics Ogre uses titles from Orthodox Christianity when referring to the leaders of Galgastan and Bakram. "Abuna" is a title found in much African [Oriental] Orthodox churches, particularly in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and is also used to colloquially refer to a priest among Syrian and Egyptian Christians. (It's a common Semitic term that means "our father", so, e.g., "Abuna Markos" is roughly equivalent to the Catholic "Father Mark".) "Hierophant" is a title that is not limited to Orthodoxy, but is commonly used in the Orthodox Church, particularly the Greek Orthodox Church. The PlayStation translation of the original game used Catholic titles instead.
  • Half-Life 2 has least two, an Orthodox-like character named Father Grigori, and an Orthodox-like churchnote  in the now abandoned place of Ravenholm.
  • In Cossacks: European Wars, the nations representing 17th century Russia and Ukraine have an Orthodox priest as healing unit (whereas most of the other nations are Catholic and so have a chaplain, and the two Muslim nations have a mullah).
  • Crusader Kings 2 has both Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy (presented in-game as Miaphysitism). Early versions of the game depicted Oriental Orthodoxy (then called "Monophysitism") as a straight-up Orthodox heresy, by which logic Catholicism should also have been depicted as an Orthodox heresy (or vice-versa).note  By this same reasoning, Nestorianism was also eventually split off as a "top-level" subdivision of Christianity alongside Catholicism, (Eastern) Orthodoxy, and Miaphysitism.
  • The intro to Civilization: Beyond Earth shows an Orthodox priest blessing a Slavic Federation ship that's about to lift off.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy is one of the religions in Empire: Total War alongside Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Animism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and others. Specifically, the Russian Empire is Orthodox.

Web Original

Western Animation