Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center has secured two grants totaling $610,000 that will be used to fund a multiyear research project devoted toward the issue of human rights.

One grant, for $360,000, comes from the Henry Luce Foundation, while the other, for $250,000, comes from Leadership 100. The center received the Leadership 100 grant in February, and the Luce grant in March.

The Center will use the grants to fund an interdisciplinary, international research initiative on Orthodox Christianity’s complex, even turbulent, engagement with human rights discourse.

Center co-director George Demacopoulos, Ph.D., professor of theology and the Father John Meyendorff & Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies, said he and his colleagues will bring together the world’s foremost scholars to collaborate with journalists, public intellectuals, and policy makers for the study.

The goal of the project is to create and disseminate comprehensive analyses of the contemporary relationship between Orthodox Christianity and human rights that can be shared with Orthodox leaders and heads of state around the world .

A Resistance to the West

The issue is especially pressing today, because the Russian Orthodox Church, which counts 70 million of the world’s 260 million Orthodox Christians, has in recent years disputed the modern definitions of universal human rights. In former Soviet Union countries where a majority of the population is Orthodox Christian, leaders are ambivalent about a universal conception of human rights that they perceive to be dictated by the West.

Demacopoulos said that the feeling is not universal though. In countries such as Syria or Turkey, where Orthodox Christians form the majority of the Christian component of society but are still very much in the minority overall, those Orthodox Christian communities absolutely embrace human rights and the notion of religious freedom.

In addition to addressing leaders within the Orthodox Christian faith, Demacopoulos said the project, which will rely on the research of 15 scholars, will offer guidance to authorities such as the U.S. State Department and the European Union. The scholars will meet at an annual three-day meeting over the five-year period and will publish academic books and articles as well as op-eds, blogs, and new media.

“We want to provide leaders with more comprehensive, nuanced, and sophisticated understanding about what is actually going on here, so they don’t just take propaganda pieces and assume that the entire Orthodox world or even the entire Russian world believes this,” he said.

Offering a Nuanced Perspective

Fellow co-director Aristotle Papanikolaou, Ph.D., professor of theology and the Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodox Theology and Culture, said the Russian Orthodox Church has been trying to redefine human rights language in such a way that allows them to uphold “traditional values” for the last decade. This understanding of human rights doesn’t protect a band like Pussy Riot from protesting in a Church, or art that’s deemed blasphemous, and it’s consistent with laws that ban gay marriage and homosexual “propaganda.”

“Normally people would say, that’s a violation of human rights, and some Orthodox Christians want to say ‘No it’s not. We have our own particular interpretation of human rights, and we are justified in doing that because the West’s concept of human rights is biased and anti-Christian,” he said. “Our project hopes to offer a more nuanced understanding of Orthodox Christianity’s relation to human rights language than the diametrical opposition proposed by certain Orthodox Christians, especially in the post-communist context.”

Papanikolaou further noted that the Russian government also uses the language of human rights and the defense of religious freedom to justify its ongoing military intervention in Syria.

“It’s a big post-Communist issue, and it’s of a piece a wider, global critique of western liberalism,” he said.

“Western theorizers of human rights have got to pay attention to Russia, and more broadly to the Orthodox Christian world.”


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.