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This term refers to a political system in which the political authorities are also the head of the Orthodox Church, initially in the Roman/Byzantine Empire, and supreme judge in religious matters. The emperor, or head of state today, extends his own power to ecclesiastical and theological matters, appoints bishops and the Eastern Patriarch and controls liturgical practices and clergy appointments. The system is most frequently associated with the late Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, when the emperor had complete control over the Orthodox Greek Church. Most modern historians recognize that the legal Byzantine texts speak of interdependence between the imperial and ecclesiastical structures rather than of a unilateral dependence of the latter; historians believe also that there was nothing in the Byzantine understanding of the Christian faith that would recognize the emperor as either doctrinally infallible or invested with priestly powers. Many historical instances of direct imperial pressure on the church ended in failure, e.g., the attempt of Zeno (474–491) and Anastasius I (491–518) in favour of monophysitism, and the efforts of Michael VIII Palaeologus (1259–82) in favour of union with Rome. John Chrysostom and most other authoritative Byzantine theologians denied imperial power over the church.
It was normal practice, however, for the Eastern Roman emperor to act as the protector of the universal church and as the manager of its administrative affairs. Eusebius of Caesarea called Constantine “the overseer of external” (as opposed to spiritual) church problems (episkopos ton ektos). Emperors presided over councils, and their will was decisive in the appointment of patriarchs and in determining the territorial limits of their jurisdiction. Emperor Justinian I, in the preface to his Novella 6 (535), described the ideal relation between the sacerdotium and the imperium as a “symphony,” an essentially dynamic and moral interpretation of church-state relations that did allow numerous abuses but was hardly a submission of the church to the state. Some historians (Gregory 2010) assert that caesaropapism never implied that emperors had the authority over the church as the pope, the bishop of Rome, did in the west. Despite the power of the emperor, he did not have complete control over the church, as the word implies. He was not pope and emperor of the Orthodox Church.
Caesaropapism was more a reality in Russia, where the abuses of Ivan IV the Terrible went practically unopposed and where Peter the Great finally transformed the church into a department of the state in 1721, although neither claimed to possess special doctrinal authority. In Russia and in Greece, the Orthodox Church has maintained the caesaro-papism legacy, where religion and politics are strongly intertwined.
The concept of caesaropapism has also been applied in Western Christendom—for example, to the reign of Henry VIII in England, as well as to the principle cujus regio, ejus religio (“religion follows the sovereign”), which prevailed in Germany after the Reformation. In Scandinavia, Lutheranism was imposed as the dominant religion and promoted the establishment of national churches subordinate to the state. The Danish constitution designates the Lutheran Evangelical Church as the national church. Parliament is its legislative head, and the minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs its administrative authority. The state’s moral supremacy implies that the monarch must be a member that church. In Norway, Parliament confirmed in 1981 that the Norwegian Church was the official church headed by the King, whose authority is exerted only through those Council of State’s members who are baptized members of the Church. This means that the Church is directed not as a secular state, but by a head of state belonging to the Lutheran community. Laws about the Church go through Parliament, whose members belong to the Norwegian Church in their majority, and its administration depends on the Royal Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs. However, Stortinget passed a new bill in 2016 that establishes the Church of Norway as an independent legal entity rather than a branch of the civil service, so that it officially ceased to be the state church on January 1, 2017. In Sweden, the 1809 Constitution requires both the King and members of government to belong to the Church of Sweden. In 1810 the Riksdag elected Bernadotte, Napoleon’s Marshal, as King Charles XIII’s presumprive heir because he was childless and there was no heir to the throne. Bernadotte had to abjure his catholic faith and adopted his new country’faith to be crowned as Charles XIV in 1818. The current Church of Sweden is administered by a synodal structure, which elects bishops to be appointed by the government, the Archbishop of Uppsala being “primus inter pares”. Since 2000, the church of Sweden has no longer been an established institution but a faith community.
It should not be concluded from these remarks that interdependence between the religious and political spheres is absent from other cultures. In Thailand, the constitution relies on the three pillars of nation, monarchy and Buddhism, which sticks to politics. In neighbouring Burma, Buddhism has turned to be a central ingredient of nationalism. However, the countries where secular states and political secularism are most affected are undoubtedly those with a Muslim majority. The institutional supremacy of religious law over civil law was first illustrated by the decision of Saudi Arabia not to sign the UN declaration of Human Rights in 1948, arguing that it violated Islamic law. Since then, secular states and political secularism have been severely undermined, in particular with the establishment of the first modern theocracy in 1979 in Iran. By the late 1980s, Islamic political movements had emerged in Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Chad, Senegal, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even Indonesia. Pakistan, whose partition from India was based on exclusively religious principles, established the Sunni sect as the virtually dominant denomination. This has proved to be disastrous even to Muslim minorities, among which Ahmedis have been deemed non-Muslim and therefore convicted for calling themselves Muslims or using the word ‘mosque’ to designate their place of worship (Bhargava 2011).
In 1990, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, adopted at the Nineteenth Conference of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) by its 45 member states (among which Turkey, whose constitution was said to be secular) and published by the UN as one of the regional instrument in 1997, reaffirmed the supremacy of religious law. It says that “All the rights and freedoms stipulated in this Declaration are subject to the Islamic Shari'ah” (Art. 24), and “The Islamic Shari'ah is the only source of reference for the explanation or clarification to any of the articles of this Declaration” (Art. 25). This declaration questions the very concept of the universality of human rights or, in other words, affirms an alternative view of universality based on religious principles.