How Many Orthodox Christians Are in the World?

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is often referred to as “the spiritual leader of the world’s [200, 250, 300] million Orthodox Christians.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is often referred to as “the spiritual leader of the world’s [200, 250, 300] million Orthodox Christians.”

OrthodoxHistory –  –  9/7/2020

In 1991, when Bartholomew I was enthroned as Ecumenical Patriarch, the Los Angeles Times ran the following headline: “Bartholomeos I Installed as Leader of 200 Million Orthodox Christians.” Six years later, in 1997, the same newspaper wrote of Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Southern California, describing him as “spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians.” A few days later, when the Patriarch visited Los Angeles, the Times upped that number to 300 million. Nowadays, you’re most likely to see that 300 million number cited. So what is it? 200 million? 250? 300? Something else?

I went through every country in the world, and my best estimate is that there are between about 160 and 225 million people who profess to be Orthodox Christians in the world today (not counting the non-Chalcedonians). The mean estimate is 192 million.

Russia, of course, has the largest number of Orthodox Christians — but also the largest amount of uncertainty in terms of how many people are, in fact, Orthodox. Many estimates put the Orthodox percentage of Russia’s population at around 70%, but others, such as the Arena Atlas of Religions and Nationalities in Russia, report a much lower percentage — closer to 40% — which might be more realistic. For Russia, then, we’re looking at somewhere between 62 million and 104 million people who profess to be Orthodox Christians. The mean of the two estimates for Russia is around 83 million.

For each country, I tried to find two estimates, based different on data sources, although in some cases I could only find one number. Most of the data came from official censuses or surveys of the population. Here’s the top ten, based on the means of the estimates.

Russia, 82.9 million
Ukraine, 31.9 million
Romania, 16.2 million
Greece, 9.7 million
Serbia, 7.5 million
Bulgaria, 5.5 million
Belarus, 5.2 million
Kazakhstan, 4.5 million
Moldova, 3.7 million
Georgia, 3.4 million
The number for Ukraine, by the way, includes all groups claiming to be Orthodox. The top ten countries account for 89% of all Orthodox Christians in the world. The majority of the remaining 11% come from the next ten countries:

Italy, 2.2 million
Uzbekistan, 1.8 million
North Macedonia, 1.4 million
The United States, 1.3 million
Bosnia & Herzegovina, 1.1 million
Germany, 1.1 million
Spain, 913,000
France, 783,000
Cyprus, 777,000
Kenya, 756,000
That’s right — the 11th-largest Orthodox population in the world is now in Italy, where Orthodoxy is basically tied with Islam as the second-largest religion. There are more Orthodox Christians in Italy than in the United States and Canada combined.

The Uzbekistan estimate is very uncertain: in 2010, Pew estimated that 1.7% of the Uzbek population was Orthodox, while the CIA World Factbook puts the Orthodox at 9%, which pushes up their mean estimate a lot. If you don’t trust that data and kick Uzbekistan out of the top 20, they’d be replaced by Kyrgyzstan, at 637,000. France also has a big range, with a variety of surveys putting the Orthodox percentage anywhere from 0.4% to 2.0% of the population (so, anywhere from 261,000 to 1.3 million people).

Lebanon and Syria are #24 and #28, with just shy of a million Orthodox between them, although that number is very uncertain given all the upheaval in the region.

Albania and Poland both have autocephalous churches, but both are extremely small, ranking #29 and #32, with around 400,000 Orthodox in each country. The autocephalous Church of the Czech Lands is even tinier — combined, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have around 65,000 Orthodox people, which puts them just a little bit ahead of Ireland (#53). Finland, an autonomous church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, had 61,000 Orthodox based on its latest national census, but recent survey data suggests a number as high as 111,000.

Antiochian Orthodox Paschal celebration in the Hatay province in Turkey, 2018

Antiochian Orthodox Paschal celebration in the Hatay province in Turkey, 2018

Turkey is home to not one but two ancient patriarchal sees: everyone knows Constantinople, but don’t forget that Antioch (now called Antakya) is in Turkey, and where the Patriarchate of Antioch still has canonical territory. The Antiochian Orthodox, concentrated in southeastern Asia Minor, were not subject to the forced population exchanges between Turkey and Greece in the early 1920s, and today there are vastly more Antiochians than Greeks in Turkey — possibly ten times as many. So when you see reports that “only 2,000 Orthodox are left in Turkey,” remember that it’s only talking about Greek Orthodox. In addition to the Antiochians, we can add to that tens of thousands of foreign workers in Turkey, including something like 50,000 Russians — many of whom are Orthodox. And Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Serbs… add it all up, and I’m estimating something like 100,000 Orthodox Christians in Turkey, of various nationalities.

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Orthodoxy grew rapidly in Sub-Saharan Africa in the 20th century, and along the way the Patriarchate of Alexandria — which historically had been limited to North Africa — annexed the rest of the continent. An estimated 1.3 million Eastern Orthodox now live on the African continent, with over half of those in Kenya. There are a surprising number in Ivory Coast, with an estimate of about 100,000. Of course, these numbers don’t include the non-Chalcedonians, which have far more faithful in Africa (particularly Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Egypt).

What about Western Europe — countries that would generally have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Church of Rome prior to the schism? I’m estimating 7.1 million (with a low/high range of 5.6 to 8.6 million). A great many of these people are ethnically Romanian.

Many of my readers will likely have a particular interest in the U.S. and Canada. For the U.S., my two estimates (856,000 and 1.65 million, with a mean of 1.26 million) were based on (a) the 2010 census of American Orthodox parishes conducted by Alexei Krindatch, which estimated that around 0.26% of the U.S. population is associated in some way with an Eastern Orthodox church, and (b) the Pew 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study, in which 0.5% of participants identified as Orthodox. Both of these sources have significant flaws, but they’re the best we have to work with right now.

Canada collects religious affiliation information in its census, the most recent of which (2011) found that 1.52% of the population was Orthodox (not counting non-Chalcedonians). A separate source had a slightly lower estimate (1.38%). So our range is 521-574k, with a mean of 548,838.

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You can view all my data, including links to sources, by clicking here. All these estimates are just that — estimates — based on the best publicly-available information I could find, and I’m happy to be corrected on any of these numbers.

Next time, I will examine a different and perhaps even more interesting question: How many practising Orthodox Christians are in the world?

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