ongoing debate between two rival branches of the Estonian
Orthodox Church has underscored continued tensions between
the Baltic country's Russians and ethnic Estonians. After
Estonia regained its independence in 1991, the country's single
Soviet-era Orthodox Church split into two branches. One --
the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, under jurisdiction
of Constantinople -- was registered in 1993 and became the
legal successor to the pre-World War II Estonian Orthodox
Church. The second -- the Estonian Russian Orthodox Church
of the Moscow Patriarchate -- was sidelined by Estonian authorities
and only gained official registration last month. Lingering
disputes on how best to divide the property of the formerly
united churches look set to continue for some time.
month, the Estonian government registered the Estonian Russian
Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, ending a nine-year
dispute over the church's status.
rival branch -- the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which
falls under the jurisdiction of Constantinople -- was registered
in 1993, shortly after the country regained independence.
The Estonian Orthodox Church -- the country's only official
Orthodox Church during the Soviet era -- then split into two
the Moscow branch's initial attempts to register, Estonian
officials deemed the Constantinople branch the legitimate
successor to the pre-World War II Orthodox Church in Estonia
and the sole legal heir to the church's pre-war property.
The issue has prompted authorities in Russia to accuse Estonian
officials of bias in rejecting the Moscow church's claim to
debate has its roots in the years following World War I,
when Estonia became an independent state and Russia was engulfed
in the Bolshevik revolution. When the Bolsheviks clamped down
on the Orthodox Church in Russia, its Estonian counterpart
lost contact with the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1923, Constantinople
took the church into its jurisdiction as the Estonian Apostolic
after the Soviet occupation in 1944, Estonia's ties to Constantinople
disintegrated. Under pressure from the Soviet government,
the Estonian Orthodox Church came back under the control of
the Moscow Patriarchate. Many Estonian followers of the Constantinople
church, however, fled the country after World War II
and established an Estonian Orthodox Church in Exile, which
continued to maintain ties with Constantinople. In this way,
two opposed groups first appeared within the Estonian Orthodox
Corley works for the British-based Keston Institute, which
monitors religious freedom in communist and post-communist
countries. He said the conflict took on a new character after
Estonia re-established its independence in 1991.
new Estonian government that took power after the communist
period wanted to disassociate the country from Russia and
wanted to associate with Europe and with the West. And the
Moscow Patriarchate was seen as looking the wrong direction
and also sending the wrong signals, as the government saw
it," Corley said.
combination of elements, Corley said, explains the Estonian
authorities' reluctance to register the Moscow church. But,
he added, the recent registration of the church shows that
Estonia -- which last September elected a new president and
in January received a new prime minister and a new, overwhelmingly
young cabinet -- may be changing its attitude.
it seems that the registration has taken place because of
the change of the government, the change of the president,
the change of the ruling coalition, which is less hostile
to Russia. The government wants to see the resolution of this
question, which is causing a lot of political problems between
Estonia and Russia," Corley said.
said the Moscow Patriarchate is also adjusting its stance
on Estonian independence and is trying to look at the situation
the Moscow branch now registered, representatives from both
Orthodox churches have turned their attention to the question
of how to divide property between the two branches. The Moscow
branch now lays claim to a number of churches in Estonia that
legally -- according to the Estonian government -- belong
to the Constantinople branch.
Ringve works with the Department for Religious Affairs in
Estonia's Interior Ministry. He said unless the property issue
can be solved equitably between the two churches, the issue
may prove divisive for Russian-Estonian relations.
[the problem of property division] is going to be politicized,
then it is going to be a problem. If it is looked upon as
a legal problem between the two churches and how they can
manage to solve it, I guess it won't be," Ringve
church debate crosses boundaries of nationality. There are
parishes with ethnic Russian priests who favor the Constantinople
branch, and Estonian parishes that prefer to maintain ties
with the Moscow church. But still, the division between the
two churches runs deep.
Prekun is a priest in the Moscow church. He blames the Estonian
government for creating the rift in 1993 by deliberately choosing
to register only one of the two Orthodox churches. He said
Estonian authorities look at the Moscow church as a legacy
of the Soviet occupation, despite the fact that the Moscow
branch has deeper historical roots in the country and considerably
more believers than its Constantinople counterpart. Last month's
decision finally to register the Moscow church shows that,
as he put it, "Estonia has grown up as a state and
become more European."
hopes the churches will be able to reach an agreement on the
depends on the attitude of the church structure registered
earlier, the so-called Estonian Apostolic Church," Prekun said.
said the Moscow church wishes to own only those church buildings
in which it now functions. He was referring to the roughly
20 churches that were formerly the property of the unified
Estonian Orthodox Church. The Moscow church also holds services
in an additional 15 churches that it built itself and that
are not under dispute.
head of the Synod of Estonia's Constantinople branch, Father
Ardalion, said his church is the legal successor to the pre-World
War II Orthodox Church in Estonia. He admitted that the Moscow
church has many more members than his church, but said this
is a result of the forced immigration of Russian speakers
to Estonia during the Soviet period. He said the majority
of people who now belong to the Moscow branch of the Orthodox
Church came to the country during the Soviet era.
said he doubts the Constantinople branch will agree to share
its property with the Moscow branch. "We didn't take
their property. It is a legal matter. The law says that we
are the heirs [to the property]."
said the best decision would be to lease the buildings to
the Moscow branch rather than allowing it to own the buildings
outright. He said the property would be best passed into the
hands of the state -- which would act as lessor -- and not
resold to the Moscow church.