Prague, March 5 (RFE/RL) - In 1510, more than half a century after the sacking of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks, the Russian monk Filofey is said to have proclaimed in Moscow, "Two Romes have fallen, but the third stands and no fourth can ever be." Moscow had established its claim to leadership of Christian Orthodoxy. The city established its own patriarchate in 1589 and thereafter, extended its realm as the Russian empire expanded. The Patriarch of Constantinople remained a "first among equals" with the eastern prelates, but the Russian Orthodox Church led by the Patriarch of Moscow soon became the largest and most powerful institution in the Orthodox world.
Now, after the fall of Communism, the Orthodox Church across the former Soviet Union is fracturing and a battle of allegiances is being fought anew between the Patriarch of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) and Moscow. Last month, relations between Moscow and Constantinople were formally suspended, in a sovereignty dispute over the Baltic state of Estonia. For the first time since Russia adopted Christianity in 988, Russian Patriarch Alexii II left out any reference to the Patriarch of Constantinople during a church service. The break fell short of a formal schism, but only barely.
The trigger for this epic dispute has been the status of the tiny Estonian Apostolic Church, whose 80 parishes in the Baltic nation number no more than 40,000 Orthodox believers (parishes in Estonia numbered 160 before World War Two). At its heart, the row is over politics, property and precedent - not religion.
The dispute has its roots back in 1917. After the Bolsheviks came to power in Russia, the Russian Orthodox Church, then brutally repressed by the Soviets, asked Constantinople to take the Orthodox Church in independent Estonia under its protection. In 1923, the Constantinople Patriarchate formalized the agreement, and church leaders in Tallinn switched political allegiance to the Patriarch of Constantinople.
When the Soviet Union annexed Estonia during the Second World War two decades later, part of the local Orthodox leadership fled to Sweden, establishing an Estonian Orthodox Church in exile. The Orthodox clergy remaining in Estonia was brought back under Moscow's control. The Estonian Orthodox Church was now split into two parts: a de jure authority, preaching from Sweden, and a de facto Estonia-based administration, loyal to Moscow. In 1978, Constantinople recognized Moscow's jurisdiction over the Orthodox Church in Estonia, relinquishing its claim.
The situation appeared to have been resolved - until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1993, the newly-independent Estonian government asked all religious organizations to register with the interior ministry - so that competing property claims could begin to be resolved.
Stockholm-based Estonian church leaders promptly registered in Tallinn as the Estonian Apostolic Church. When Orthodox believers who had stayed in Estonia and were loyal to Moscow tried to register under the same name, they were refused. The Estonian Apostolic Church then asked Constantinople for its formal protection, as it announced that most of its parishioners had decided to break off from Moscow. When Constantinople extended its recognition, Moscow broke off relations with the "mother church." In language reminiscent of Cold War rhetoric, Metropolitan Kirill, a Russian Orthodox Church leader in charge of foreign relations, accused the Constantinople Patriarchate of interfering in Moscow's affairs and of plotting with the Estonian interior ministry to disenfranchise ethnic Russian believers.
The breakup of the Soviet Union curtailed Moscow's influence in every sphere. The Russian Orthodox Church has decided to take a stand in Estonia, over a handful of parishes, because it fears the Estonian defection could open the floodgates to other Orthodox Churches seeking to leave Moscow's embrace.
Russian Patriarch Alexii II also has a personal stake in Estonia, having been born in Tallinn and served for a time as Orthodox leader of Estonia. But what really worries Moscow is Ukraine, where the Russian Orthodox Church, for now supported by Constantinople, has refused recognition since 1992 of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Rival churches in Ukraine are currently vying for millions of parishioners and much prime property.
Never distant from politics, the Russian Orthodox Church has found itself dragged into the messy world of post Soviet intrigue. And just as the breakup of the USSR began in the Baltics, with Lithuania's declaration of independence, the Estonian dispute could presage a fracturing of the Russian Orthodox Church.