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Estonia: Russian Patriarch's Homecoming Stirs Controversy

  • Don Hill

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II visited his native Estonia this week for the first time since 1993. Disputes over church property, Estonian autonomy, and a church schism with roots in the history of Christianity itself have kept him away.

Prague, 23 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In what is almost the Eastern Orthodox equivalent of Pope John Paul II visiting Poland, Aleksii II, the patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, is visiting Estonia this week. It was a homecoming for Patriarch Aleksii, a native Estonian.

The patriarch was born in Tallinn in 1929. He took office as head of the Tallinn diocese in 1961. When appointed to lead the larger and more prestigious Leningrad -- now St. Petersburg -- diocese in 1986, he continued as head of the Tallinn diocese.

But this week's visit is the patriarch's first to his native land since 1993. He has been inhibited from coming to Estonia by a continuing dispute over church property, over Estonian autonomy, and over a church schism with roots in the history of Christianity itself, when Eastern Orthodoxy split from Rome in 1054.

Some symbolic movement in the church-property issue evidently moved Aleksii to make the visit finally, after a number of postponements. But mainly, he used the trip as a personal pilgrimage. He officiated at a worship service in Tallinn's St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. Among other events, he will conduct a memorial service at the cemetery in Tallinn where his parents are buried.

In honor of the visit, the Tallinn municipal authorities restituted to the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate a building in the center of Old Tallinn, where the church's office and the metropolitan's residence are situated. An Orthodox metropolitan is the bishop in charge of an ecclesiastical province.

And at a reception at the presidential palace, President Arnold Ruutel presented to the patriarch the Order of the Cross of Terra Marianas, the highest national honor, in, as Ruutel's decree put it, "recognition of services of the head of the Russian Orthodox Church to Estonia."

Despite the amity, the visit was dogged by controversy. Estonia's nationalistic opposition party, Isamaaliit, denounced as "deeply offensive" the president's award to Patriarch Aleksii and demanded annulment of the presidential decree. Baltic News Service quoted a party spokesman as saying that it was incomprehensible for the award to go to Aleksei Ridiger -- the patriarch's secular name -- who earned in 1988 a commendation from the Soviet KGB as an agent.

There was some hope that a long-standing dispute between two groups claiming to the true Orthodox Church in Estonia would be softened by now. But bureaucracy apparently entangled arrangements to award additional properties to the Moscow-related group. Limo Au, head of the Religious Affairs Department of the Estonian Interior Ministry, explained to RFE/RL: "The process on those properties is going on. We must consider the state's possession, assessment, and registration. Only when this process has been finished, can we conclude a contract, giving the properties to the possession of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate."

A question of the subordination of the Estonian Orthodox Church is inseparable from Estonia's historical national status. Before World War I, Estonia was a province of Imperial Russia and the Orthodox Church was within the aegis of the Moscow Patriarchate. Between the two 20th-century world wars, Estonia was independent and the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, placed itself under the wing of the Constantinople Patriarchate.

When the Red Army entered Estonia during World War II, many clergy and believers fled to Sweden, where they established a church in exile that maintained ties with Constantinople. Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarchate reestablished hegemony over the church in Estonia.

Soon after Estonia declared itself an independent nation in 1990, the Swedish group registered as the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church and applied for restitution of the church properties. The Russian Orthodox Church applied for registration under the same name in 1993, but was refused. Its several appeals since have failed.

Toomas Hirvoja, a Moscow-oriented Estonian Orthodox priest, told RFE/RL's Estonian Service that a solution to the tense relations between the two church groups will take time and require goodwill among the church leaders that has yet to develop. "Unfortunately, cooperation [between the churches] hasn't progressed far," he said. "They seek common positions of mutual understanding but this is a very difficult process. There are many aspects, but to get real cooperation depends first of all on the heads of the churches, on how they get along together. On the other hand it also presumes the will of reconciliation of all believers, and that's not coming overnight."

Metropolitan Cornelius of Tallinn continues to insist that his followers, who maintain allegiance to Moscow, should have rights to all Orthodox property in Estonia. Grigorii Karasin, a spokesman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, has said that Metropolitan Cornelius's group should be recognized and has warned that the issue will affect Russian-Estonian relations.