Iconostasis: incense and nationalism in London

Orthodox mass is full of incense, ornate decorations, and most importantly, icons-  a wall of them. The phenomenon is known as iconostasis, literally icons placed in a way that conceals the altar and creates a barrier between the congregation and the priests. Dressed in robes (black or intricately and ornately decorated with gold), the priests appear and disappear behind the wall of icons, chanting and praying. The aim is to create a connection with God and a deep sense of wonder and awe at His omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence  (all- powerfulness, all- knowingness and all-encompassing presence).

At the Serbian Orthodox masses I have been to with my Deda (Grandad), there is always a choir that sings beautifully. They do repeat themselves a lot, in particular ‘gospodi pomiluj’ (Lord Have Mercy) is repeated over and over and over again, but it never stops being mesmerising. Every mass is ceremonial, even if it’s an ordinary Sunday. Easter is particularly so.


One way (among quite a few others) in which the Orthodox Church differs from the Catholic Church is that while the Catholic Church has its centre in the Vatican, the Orthodox Church is even more closely related to the idea of ‘Nation’. For example the Russian Orthodox Church is distinguished from the Ukranian Orthodox Church, which is  distinguished from the Macedonian Orthodox Church, which is again distinguished from the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Across the Southern Slavic Balkan nations, religion is a vital marker of nationality. Among Croats the main religion is Catholicism, among Serbs it’s Orthodox Christianity, and in Bosnia there is a sizable population of Bosnian Muslims known as Bosniaks. Split nations and cultural differences have meant that over the years religion has become a marker of ethnicity.

When I last attended a Serbian Orthodox Church there was a flag inside the church as well as outside. They were also selling books about the ‘Serbian origins of Kosovo’. This is incredibly polemic a topic, given that Serbia split with Kosovo in 2008 after years of animosity between ethnic Serbs (who are Orthodox)  and ethnic Albanians (who are Muslim). So it is clear that, even in the Balkan communities of London, religion is a key instrument in nationalism.


With Serbian flags proudly placed in God’s house and books about God’s monasteries in dispute-ridden Kosovo, it doesn’t take a cynic to spot that these are attempts  to portray Serbia as a nation blessed and honoured by God. More crucially, as a nation blessed and honoured by God above others. This is dangerous. After all, God, whatever that might entail, is surely above nation. This aside, the situation in Kosovo has been tense, bitter and heart-breaking. It contributed to the start of the break-up of Yugoslavia and cemented its ending. Stoking up nationalism when tensions already exist between Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo Albanian communities is certainly counterproductive and backward.

Thirdly, a lot of the older London community arrived when it was Yugoslavia, not Serbia. Certainly, in my immediate family, no one has lived there since it was Yugoslavia. This hasn’t stopped old friends from falling apart – Croats and Serbians who were friends when they arrived in London in the 60s, haven’t spoken to each other since the war in the 90s. People even accuse each other of having raised money for paramilitaries during the conflict, and no one knows who’s telling the truth.

In the meantime nationalism in the Balkans doesn’t show any  sign of dissipating. No one has the answers. Except maybe if we drop the flags and the politics God does ; in the icons and the incense, the rosaries and the statues of Mary, the adhan and the misbaha.

Icon 2

Scarlett Sherriff, Editor-in-chief

Photos: authors own

Note: I talk about the Serbian Orthodox Church in particular, because this is the experience I have, as my grandparents were raised Orthodox. However tensions and issues of nationalism most definitely apply across all of the nations mentioned. The only way to move beyond this is not to reduce conflict to simplistic narratives of victims and perpetrators.

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