The Great Schism between the Eastern and the Western Church (1054) was the culmination of a gradual process of estrangement between East and West that began in the early centuries of the Byzantine Empire and continued throughout the Middle Ages. Linguistic and cultural differences, as well as political events, contributed to the estrangement. Theological differences could probably have been settled if there were not two different concepts of church authority. The growth of Roman primacy, based on the concept of the apostolic origin of the Church of Rome, which claimed not only titular but also jurisdictional authority over other churches, was incompatible with traditional Orthodox ecclesiology. The Eastern Orthodox Christians considered all churches as sister churches and understood the primacy of the Roman bishop only as primus inter pares among his brother bishops. For the East, the highest authority in settling doctrinal disputes could not be the authority of a single Church or a single bishop, but an Ecumenical Council of all sister churches. Owing to these serious dogmatic differences the Orthodox Churches are not in communion with the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities.
The Serbian Orthodox Church sees itself as a defender of Christianity against an Islamic onslaught in Europe on the one side, and the march of Roman Catholicism against Eastern Orthodoxy on the other. In common with other Orthodox Churches, it regards itself as the standard-bearer of the nation's authentic identity, which it has practically sacralized. Parallels of its threefold role as protector of identity, guarantor of territory, and a pledge for the future are to be found in other Orthodox Churches. The Serbian Orthodox Church bases its perceived role on the following two main and perhaps contradictory premises. First, it defends the Serb nation as a natural entity, an organic body incapable of survival and development if divided or separated from its Orthodox religious roots, for there is a strong belief that he who is not Orthodox is not a Serb. Second, it carries a deep sense of insecurity acquired during the centuries of victimization (at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the Independent State of Croatia, and Communism). In its pastoral letters and statements in recent times the Serbian Church has likened the fate of the Serb people to that of Christ. History and a belief that they live in hostile surroundings weigh down Serb priests. This sense of victimization has been the overriding factor in the Serbian Orthodox Church's response to the Yugoslav crisis.
Even before the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church were burdened by many problems, including Rome's position on the persecution of Serbs in the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) during the Second World War, the question of language and alphabet in Croatia, the Kosovo problem, the Catholic Church's attitude to the Macedonian Orthodox Church, and so on. The Roman Catholic Church objected that the Serbian Orthodox Church had 'substituted the cult of St Sava as its imperialist ideology for the Gospel'. Although Patriarch Pavle and Cardinal Kuharic met several times between 1991 and 1994, and Serbian Orthodox leaders and the Croatian president exchanged letters, relations between them became increasingly tense. Several attempts to arrange a visit by Pope John Paul II to Belgrade failed. The controversy about the number of churches destroyed, the silence of the Catholic Church about the position of the Serbian Orthodox in Croatia, and its attitude towards the expulsion of Serbs and their suffering during war operations made cooperation and dialogue between the two churches difficult. Then, after 1999, things slowly began to improve.
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