Interior Ministry has finally registered the branch of the
Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in the Baltic
state, ending a legal wrangle that has blighted relations
between the Tallinn and Moscow governments since 1993, when
the Estonian government registered a rival Orthodox Church
under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Au, head of the department for religious affairs at the Interior
Ministry, told Keston News Service from the Estonian capital
on 18 April that his ministry had registered the statute of
the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate the
previous day, together with those of three of its parishes,
and that the Church's leader, Metropolitan Kornily (Jakobs)
of Tallinn and All Estonia, and a delegation of priests had
visited his ministry today to collect the registration certificates
from the Interior Minister Ain Seppik.
is good that we have now been able to register our Church
with a statute that is in accord with our conscience," Father Toomas Hirvoja, secretary to the church synod, told
Keston from Tallinn on 18 April. "I think they are
happy with the situation now," Au declared of the
Moscow Orthodox. Father Hirvoja (one of those who accompanied
Metropolitan Kornily to the ministry to collect the certificates)
attributed the registration to the change of government in
January, which saw a coalition of the Centre and the Reform
parties come to power. The previous government had given strong
backing to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC) headed
by Metropolitan Stefanos (Charalambidis) under the jurisdiction
of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
to journalists in Moscow on 18 April, the Estonian-born Russian
Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi welcomed the registration, describing
it as the "first step" on the path to resolving
the Church's problems in Estonia, particularly that of property.
Father Hirvoja and Au reported that the newly-registered Church
now has three registered parishes, two in Tallinn and one
in the town of Maardu close to the capital, out of a total
in Estonia of just over thirty Moscow Patriarchate parishes. "These were the ones whose applications we had already
been able to file," Father Hirvoja declared. "The
rest will follow as soon as we can manage it." In
addition to the Metropolitan, the Moscow church has 35 priests
- the majority of them Estonian citizens - as well as more
than ten deacons, Father Hirvoja reported.
main issue holding up registration for the past decade has
been the question of who owns Orthodox property, held by the
Moscow Patriarchate until 1923, from then until the Soviet
occupation of Estonia during the Second World War by the Church
under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and then handed by the
Soviet government to the Moscow Patriarchate. Au said that
the newly-registered statute had not mentioned property issues. "This will be covered in different contracts," he told Keston. Nor did registration of the statute entail
state recognition of any continuity with the pre-war Estonian
Orthodox Church, he added.
Puhtitsa convent in eastern Estonia was registered as a patriarchal
(stavropegial) convent in October 1997, while the Alexander
Nevsky cathedral in Tallinn was registered as a patriarchal
(stavropegial) church in March 1999, both on the application
of Patriarch Aleksi. Until this week's decision to grant registration
to the Moscow Church, these were the only two entities of
the Moscow Church which had legal status. All its other parishes
and institutions were functioning in legal limbo.
confirmed that now the Church has registration, it will be
able to carry out functions previously denied to it and will
also be eligible to receive government funding for maintaining
buildings and carrying out social projects.
Hirvoja agrees that property remains an unresolved issue. "It is bad that the property of our parishes claimed
by the Constantinople Church has still not been resolved." The EAOC has agreed to hand the churches it does not need
(which are currently being used by the Moscow Church) to the
Estonian government. The government is then due to assign
them to the Moscow Church's use on a permanent basis, although
no agreements have yet been signed. "The Moscow Church
will be able to continue to use them, while the state actually
owns them," Au told Keston. He puts the number of
such churches at "about 25", though Father
Hirvoja says there are only "15 to 17". Au
added that the Moscow Church will now be able to take full
legal ownership of the churches it has rebuilt or built since
the Second World War, which he put at "4 or 5".
of our parishes has its own church building," Father
Hirvoja noted, "except for the parish in Paldiski,
where a church is still being built." He believed
the newly-granted registration will simplify permission to
build new churches, as individual parishes will now have legal
EAOC has 59 registered parishes and owns all 59 parish churches
it currently uses.
Father Hirvoja said his Church faced no other serious obstructions
to its work, he noted that paperwork to invite priests from
Russia can still be difficult. "There can be problems
getting residence permits. But this doesn't depend on registration
- it is the same for anyone."
Hirvoja welcomed the new law on religion which was finally
adopted at the end of February after being vetoed last September
by then president Lennart Meri and in January by the new president
Arnold Ruutel. Father Hirvoja particularly welcomed the transfer
of registration from the Interior Ministry to a court, which
takes effect when the law enters into force on 1 July. "It
is important that registration of religious organisations
will be handled by a judicial rather than an executive authority," he declared. "This will make the process more neutral."