When Ljiljana Colic, the Minister for Education and Sport of Serbia and Montenegro, had her fifteen minutes of fame in September, most international observers merely shook their heads at the proof of political immaturity and incompetence represented by her story. She had unilaterally instructed primary school teachers to remove the theory of evolution from their teaching programmes, alleging that this was just one theory among many, and that the theory of creation in six days was just as good from a scientific point of view. When the story got out, an avalanche of ridicule both inside and outside the country swept her out of her job, and a hasty press conference from a deputy minister saying that Darwin was safe in Serbia after all seemed to be the end of the matter.

The choice of Colic for this particular ministerial portfolio seemed rather odd even before this saga. In addition to the attempt to install creationism, she had also claimed that computer science should not be taught (because it would spread cancer), and that there was no need for little Serbs and Montenegrins to find out anything about the English language, compulsory religious education offering a much better preparation for the 21st century. How was it possible that such an eccentric should have reached a position where such policies could be enacted? Are things still so confused in Belgrade that government ministers can develop national policies without anyone else noticing? Sadly, there is another explanation.

It was not the policies themselves but the national and international outcry and resulting embarrassment for the government that cost Colic her job. Other officials in the Ministry of Education are said to be just as keen to install religious values. They represent a development taking place not just in Serbia, but throughout the Balkans and the former USSR, which the West finds difficult to understand or deal with: the rise from the ashes of the Orthodox Church.

In the case of Serbia, the attempt to dethrone Darwin and to replace the study of foreign languages with indoctrination in Orthodox dogma was not something Colic dreamed up by herself. The Serbian Orthodox Church has wanted to turn the state education system to its purposes for decades, and in common with other Orthodox church establishments, is not shy about going into politics to achieve this. Across the Orthodox world we see that church leaders participate in political debates far more actively than priests in the West.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has had rather an easy ride of it in Western eyes, since it is known that its leaders opposed Milosevic. What is not generally understood is that the reason they opposed the 'Bolshevik' Milosevic is that he insisted on preserving the atheistic, secular standards of Tito's Yugoslavia. The Orthodox hierarchy (whose current position is that Serbs in Kosovo should boycott elections there) opposed this particular model of nationalism, but the opposition was not on democratic grounds. They were enthusiastic supporters of ethnic cleansing and Greater Serbia, and Orthodox priests blessed the artillery pieces that destroyed Sarajevo and Mostar - even offering their prayers for Arkan's notorious Tigers. To some extent this was made possible by the decentralized nature of church organization, with individual priests able to act without this necessarily representing the policy of their superiors; but it would be idle to pretend that the general tendency of Orthodox policy is much compromised by this kind of display.

The Orthodox Church is fairly remote to Western eyes. Another name for this branch of Christendom is 'Byzantine Christianity', because this was the religion of the Eastern, Greek-speaking half of the Roman Empire, which survived the fall of the Western Empire by a thousand years. Originally a Greek-language affair, it developed a Slav variant in the 9th century, creating the first written form of the Slav languages for the purpose. The Orthodox had been prompted to move into Slav territories by the Catholic Church's campaign at mass conversions in these illiterate, pagan lands, and there is still a border between historically Catholic and historically Orthodox peoples in Eastern Europe as a result - dividing Serbs from Croats, for instance, or Russians from Lithuanians and Poles.

All the Orthodox churches share exactly the same theology. They are, indeed, orthodox in that respect. Their position is that the Latin language was spread by the Devil as a means of subverting the word of God, and that the Catholic Church is the result, this organisation in fact being nothing but the tool of Satan. (This is why the current Pope's half-hearted attempts at reconciliation with the Orthodox world have failed so completely.) The creation of the even more heterodox Protestant churches, and the moral collapse of western society that followed, is seen as proof that the Devil's plan has largely succeeded. The fact that the Orthodox lands were overrun by the Muslim Ottoman Empire for centuries has created a powerful anti-Islamic tradition as well.

The only theological writers fully accepted by the Orthodox are those Church Fathers writing in Greek up to the third century. There has been no important change in dogma since then. The whole of Latin theology, including for instance the work of St Thomas Aquinas, who reintroduced Aristotle and classical Greek philosophy to the West, is rejected out of hand. But the social function of the Orthodox churches has been defined as much by historical circumstance as by dogma. Both in the Balkans, with the Ottomans in charge for five hundred years, and in Russia, where it was the Golden Horde of Genghis Khan that installed itself and pushed Christian values aside, the Orthodox Church has historically been the anchor point of a threatened national identity as well as a purely religious outfit. To be Greek, Serbian or Bulgarian in the multi-cultural Ottoman Empire was to belong to the Orthodox Church. To be a Russian was to be a Russian Orthodox Christian. There was no national state to preserve a national idea, and among mostly illiterate people, literary, historical or scholarly traditions could not function - so it was the village priest, with his mystical link to the national and national-religious tradition, who kept the national consciousness alive.

The Orthodox Church offers a characteristic mix of monkish asceticism, mystical exaltation, and a special cult of beauty. There is no deviation from tradition, but the tradition offers on the one hand the icons, which are supposed to be divinely-inspired pictures of Heaven, and on the other, the unaccompanied harmony singing which is found everywhere, though in different local traditions. Islam does not allow the graphic representation of a living thing in its art; in a similar spirit, the Orthodox Church does not allow musical instruments in church, these being seen as blasphemous imitations of the God-given human voice. Generally speaking, there is no attempt at rationalisation. This, after all, is what has led to the collapse of religion in the West. The Orthodox Church purveys ecstasy to the illiterate and the intellectual alike. This is its power.

In the USSR, religious policy was fixed mainly by Stalin, who allowed the Orthodox Church to continue to function, an apparent contradiction in an officially atheist state. Russians continued to be baptized as a matter of course, and since the Orthodox Church does not require any other rituals of initiation or maintenance, this ensured life membership, and the transmission of the national-mystical tradition that had inspired and united the Russians of tsarist times. But the Soviet leaders were well aware of the political aspect of Orthodox tradition, and so the Russian Orthodox Church was heavily infiltrated by the KGB. This precautionary measure may now be paying off at last. The current Patriarch, Alexey II, is widely believed to have been a KGB agent since the 1950s, and the spectacle of Alexey sharing a spotlight with Vladimir Putin raises certain questions in the minds of many observers. The idea of a national religion is gaining ground in Russia, and with Putin's whole political identity so closely defined by the war in Chechnya, the ugly result is what could be called a spirit of jihad: a sacred duty for Holy Russia to oppose the evil hordes of Islam.

Across the Orthodox world, there is a rising tide of unenlightenment. New churches are going up, and with limited funds, this must be at the expense of education, health services, roads and so forth. Why? The Orthodox Church does not make the mistake of trying to explain anything. There is the simple reiteration of dogma to defeat curiosity: the display of beards and funny hats to impose the perverse authority of a backwards-looking tradition. What is on offer instead of empty, Latinate rationalism of the West is an erotic collective experience of national identity: an ecstatic mysticism that has come to be attached to the national symbols as much as to strictly Christian items.

Nobody in the formerly communist countries can actually remember what an openly Orthodox society is like. To see this, it is necessary to go to Greece, one of the EU's most backward countries, where the Orthodox Church has been free to blight education policy and oppose progress for a hundred years. Village children will still run to kiss the hand of the man whose whole purpose in life is to keep them intellectually and spiritually in the third century; the reason there is no President-Archbishop presiding over this unhappy scene, and priests are further away from the centre of the national political debate than in Russia or Serbia, is the fact that Greece had the questionable fortune of being on the frontline during the Cold War. The influence of Soviet and US interests in the 1950s meant that Greek politics was dominated by a fairly conventional right-left power struggle: the only place available for bishops and archbishops in such a debate is on the sidelines. More recently the country's membership of the EU - on romantic grounds, as was admitted at the time - has produced enough economic prosperity to keep the tide of unreason at bay.

In time, we can hope that the famous if somewhat chimerical growth of democracy will push the policies of Orthodoxy aside in eastern Europe, but for the time being there is still a market for retrograde nationalism, and the Orthodox Church offers a ready-made ideology to support it. At the same time there is obviously some difficulty in promoting such a fantastic set of dogmas as those of the Orthodox Church in the age of computers and space travel. It is not the Devil but the advance of science and education that has so weakened the Christian churches of the West, and if we add democracy to the list of its enemies, it looks as though the Orthodox Church has some difficult times ahead.