Phyletism or ethnophyletism (from Greek ἔθνος ethnos "nation" and φυλετισμός phyletismos "tribalism") is the principle of nationalities applied in the ecclesiastical domain: in other words, the conflation between Church and nation. The term ethnophyletismos designates the idea that a local autocephalous Church should be based not on a local (ecclesial) criterion, but on an ethnophyletist, national or linguistic one. It was used at the Holy and Great (Μείζων Meizon "enlarged") pan-Orthodox Synod in Constantinople on 10 September 1872 to qualify "phyletist (religious) nationalism", which was condemned as a modern ecclesial heresy: the Church should not be confused with the destiny of a single nation or a single race.[1]


After their emancipation from Ottoman rule, the Balkan churches freely developed both their national identities and their religious life. Theological faculties were created in Athens, Belgrade, Sofia, and Bucharest. The Romanian Orthodox Church introduced the full cycle of the liturgical offices in vernacular Romanian. However, these liberal developments were often marked by nationalistic rivalries.

The term phyletism was coined at the Holy and Great pan-Orthodox Synod that met in Istanbul (then Constantinople) in 1872. The meeting was prompted by the struggle of the Bulgarian Orthodox against the domination of the Greek Patriarchate of Constantinople in the 1850s and 1860s. Discontent with the supremacy of the Greek clergy in Bulgaria had started to flare up in several Bulgarian dioceses as early as the 1820s. It was not, however, until 1850 that the Bulgarians initiated a purposeful struggle against the Greek clerics in a number of bishoprics demanding their replacement with Bulgarian ones as well as other changes such as the use of Bulgarian language in liturgy and fixed salaries for bishops. By that time, most Bulgarian religious leaders had realised that any further struggle for the rights of the Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire could not succeed unless they managed to obtain at least some degree of autonomy from the Patriarchate of Constantinople.[2]

On 10 August 1872 the Synod issued an official condemnation of ecclesiastical racism, or "ethno-phyletism", as well as its theological argumentation. In condemning phyletism, the Synod in Constantinople had, in fact, defined a basic problem of modern Orthodoxy.[3]

Both the Bulgarians and Greeks have been accused of phyletism during this period, the Greek clerics in particular for trying to impose the Greek language on non-Greek ethnic groups, such as the Slavic population of Macedonia and Thrace, and for spreading nationalistic ideas of a Greater Greece. Konstantin Leontiev, a prominent writer on the subject, notes that both sides were equally responsible for the schism, but differentiates the two:

“Both you [Greeks] and the Bulgarians can equally be accused of phyletism, that is, of introducing ethnic interests into Church questions, and in the use of religion as a political weapon; but the difference lies in the fact that Bulgarian phyletism is defensive, while yours is offensive. Their phyletism seeks only to mark out the boundaries of their tribe; yours seeks to cross the boundaries of Hellenism...[4]

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