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Estonia: Two Branches Of Orthodox Church Seeking To Live In One Country

An 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. RFE/RL reports that lingering disputes on how best to divide the property of the formerly united churches look set to continue for some time.

Prague, 10 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Last month, the Estonian government registered the Estonian Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, ending a nine-year dispute over the church's status.

Its 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 factions.

Denying 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 legitimacy.

The 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 Orthodox Church.

But 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 Church.

Felix 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.

"The 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.

That 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.

"Now 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.

Corley said the Moscow Patriarchate is also adjusting its stance on Estonian independence and is trying to look at the situation more realistically.

With 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.

Ringo 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.

"If [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 said.

The 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.

Igor 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."

Prekun hopes the churches will be able to reach an agreement on the property issue.

"Everything depends on the attitude of the church structure registered earlier, the so-called Estonian Apostolic Church," Prekun said.

Prekun 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.

The 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.

Ardalion 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]."

Ardalion 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.