2008-05-27 12:33:00

Estonian church problem in light of negotiations between Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople on 26 March 2008 in Zurich. Statement by Communication Service of Moscow Patriarchate’s department for external church relations

Delegations of the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople held negotiations on 26 March 2008 in Zurich to discuss their differences concerning the situation of the Orthodox Church in Estonia, which had forced the Russian Orthodox Church delegation to withdraw from the meeting of the Joint International Commission for theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, which took place on 8 October 2008 in Ravenna, Italy. The withdrawal was caused by the fact that a representative of Constantinople’s church jurisdiction in Estonia was invited to the meeting as a participant from the autonomous Estonian Orthodox Church that is not recognized in this canonical status either by the Russian Orthodox Church or other Local Orthodox Churches. The invitation had been sent by the Orthodox co-chairman of the Commission, Metropolitan John of Pergamon, Patriarchate of Constantinople, without any consultation with representatives of other Local Orthodox Churches.

Acting on requests coming from the mass media, the DECR Communication Service has issued the following memorandum reflecting the position taken by the Russian Orthodox Church at the recent negotiations in Zurich.

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It became impossible for the Moscow Patriarchate representatives to participate in the work of the Joint Commission in Ravenna because of the unilateral actions taken by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Those were deliberate actions to ignore the position of the Patriarchate of Moscow since the Church of Constantinople was aware of the Resolution on the Situation of the Orthodox Church in Estonia adopted by the Jubilee Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2000 and stating in its Par. 3 that representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church cannot participate in inter-Orthodox forums in which the so-called “Autonomous Estonian Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople” is officially represented.

The reason for this decision is set forth in the same Resolution: The Bishops’ Council does not consider it possible to accept the proposal of the Holy Authorities of the Church of Constantinople to recognize the church jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which has been present in Estonia since 1996, as having the canonical status of autonomy since the recognition of this status is not fully consistent with the past development and the present condition of Orthodoxy in its fullness in Estonia ( Par. 1).

This view of the “AEOC”’s canonical status is shared by a number of other Local Orthodox Churches. Moreover, the Moscow Patriarchate does not have in its possession any official information confirming that any of the Local Churches has recognized the “AEOC” as an autonomous Church.

Thus, none of the primates of Local Orthodox Churches answered in the affirmative to the inquiry sent to them by His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow and All Russia in 2001, asking whether they recognized as autonomous “the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church” led by Metropolitan Stephan since 1999. This inquire was prompted by the fact that Metropolitan Stephan participated in signing the final document of the Orthodox Summit in December 2000 in Istanbul. As it proved from the reply given to the inquiry by Patriarch Maxim of Bulgaria, the participants in the summit were not notified of the pre-appointed signature of Metropolitan Stephan as “legitimate leader of holy Orthodoxy in Estonia”. Furthermore, there was no preliminary discussion or prior arrangement on this matter. It follows from the answers to the enquiry that some primates viewed Metropolitan Stephan as an observer. Their common opinion is expressed in the reply of Catholicos-Patriarch Iliya II of All Georgia stating that the canonical status of Orthodoxy in Estonia should be defined in bilateral negotiations between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. Patriarch Paul of Serbia testified in his reply that the Bishops’ Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church fully supported the position of the Russian Orthodox Church on this problem just as the measures she took to find a just solution to it.

Earlier, in 1996, Patriarch Alexy received a number of responses to the notification he had sent out about the forced suspension of the Eucharistic communion with Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople because of his non-canonical actions in Estonia. At that time, Patriarch Teoctist of Romania expressed regret that the jurisdictional problem had not received a solution that would fully meet the need for canonical order and pastoral reality. In his reply, Archbishop Chrisostom I of Cyprus also stated his negative attitude to the recently-developed harmful situation in the Estonian Orthodox Church and the ensuing suspension of the Eucharistic communion. Catholicos-Patriarch Iliya II of All Georgia informed Patriarch Alexy that he considered it advisable to avoid unilateral actions before an appropriate negotiated decision was taken. Among precisely such actions, in the Moscow Patriarchate’s opinion, are the uncoordinated attempts to include representatives of a church structure, which has failed to gain common Orthodox recognition, in the circle of participants in various inter-Orthodox events.

The issue of church settlement in Estonia was central to a series of meetings between delegations of the two Patriarchates. The Moscow Patriarchate, on its part, has always been open to fraternal dialogue and search for mutual understanding in spite of the Patriarch of Constantinople’s actions which have brought a deplorable division into the life of the Orthodox faithful in Estonia. For seven centuries Orthodox communities there have been part of the Russian Orthodox Church which has built all the Orthodox churches there are there. Following the declaration of independence by the Republic of Estonia, the Moscow Patriarchate granted autonomy to the Estonian Church in 1920. But in 1923, Patriarch Meletios of Constantinople, in violation of sacred canons, declared this autonomous Church a metropolia of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In 1940, the canonical relations with her Mother Russian Church were restored. The Estonian Church existed as a diocese of the Moscow Patriarchate till 26 April 1993 when Patriarch Alexy issued a Tomos granting her the status of a self-governed Church. But in August 1993, the Estonian Ministry of the Interior registered the Stockholm-based so-called Synod of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church consisting of one priest and a few lay people as the owner of the historical church property in the republic. Some other clergy and laity of the Estonian Orthodox Church joined this group. On 20 February 1996, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople issued a decree re-enforcing the 1923 Tomos of Patriarch Meletios establishing “an autonomous Estonian Orthodox Metropolia” in Estonia. On February 23, the Patriarch of Moscow suspended the Eucharistic communion with Patriarch Bartholomew.

The restoration of communion was negotiated in April 1996 in Zurich. It was for the sake of absolute oikonomia and prevention of a schism in the world Orthodoxy that the Moscow Patriarchate agreed to give the Estonian Orthodox parishes and clergy an opportunity to choose their church jurisdiction for themsleves. It was also agreed that the two Patriarchates will work together to present their positions to the Estonian government so that all the Orthodox Christians in Estonia could be granted equal rights including the rights of property. It is not through the Moscow Patriarchate’s fault that this commitment has not been fulfilled in full measure for 12 years to this day.

It should be noted that the 1996 Zurich Agreement does not deal with the canonical status of Orthodoxy in Estonia. For this reason its text as adopted by the Holy Synods of the two Churches does not name the church structures in Estonia under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople. Discussion on this issue was supposed to begin after the 1996 Zurich Agreements were fulfilled since any fruitful dialogue on the canonical status of Orthodoxy in Estonia is possible only if the actual discrimination and injustice towards one of the sides are removed.

The two Patriarchates discussed the fulfillment of the 1996 Zurich Agreement concerning church property again in March and October 2000 in Geneva. It was agreed to prepare together a draft agreement on the division of church property.

In the same year 2000, Patriarch Bartholomew on two occasions showed disregard for the jurisdictional rights of the Moscow Patriarchate by visiting Estonia without notifying Patriarch Alexy and by inviting Metropolitan Stephan to an Orthodox Church Summit thus forcing the Russian Orthodox Church to refuse to take part in it. The negotiations continued despite it and the subsequent meetings of the two Patriarchates’ delegations in Vienna (January 2001) and Berlin (February 2001) were devoted to the development and adoption of the above-mentioned agreement. The Berlin negotiations resulted in development of a mutually acceptable text of agreement to be signed by Metropolitan Kornily of Tallinn and All Estonia and Metropolitan Stephan, whom the Patriarchate of Constantinople appointed the leader of its church organization in Estonia.

This draft agreement was approved by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on 22 February 2001, while its approval by the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople was delayed to provoke repeated expressions of concern on the part of the Moscow Patriarchate. Finally, Constantinople’s Holy Synod approved the Berlin Agreement, notifying the Moscow Patriarchate of it by the letter of 2 May 2003. Meanwhile, after the statute of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was registered as a result of prolonged negotiations with the Estonian authorities in 2002, the reasons Constantinople gave to explain Metropolitan Stephan’s refusal to return the churches and other property of parishes which had chosen to be faithful to the Moscow Patriarchate were no longer relevant. But the leader of the church organization under the jurisdiction of Constantinople did not change his position. He refused flatly to implement the agreements reached by the two delegations in 1996 in Zurich and in 2001 in Berlin in spite of their approval by Constantinople’s Holy Synod. At his request the property protocols signed in 2002 through the mediation of the Estonian state included a provision that the property of many parishes of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate may be only rented but not owned.

This issue was revisited by the two Patriarchates during their negotiations in April 2003 in Moscow and in July 2003 in Istanbul. Among other things an argument was voiced that the Estonian government, according to Constantinople, did not allow parishes of the Estonian Orthodox Church/Moscow Patriarchate to have their property owned for a certain long period of time. But a letter the Moscow Patriarchate received from the Estonian Minister of the Interior showed that the Estonian Government was ready to adopt an ownership agreement at any time if an understanding was reached with the “EAOC” leaders.

To present day the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate’s parishes can only rent many churches and church facilities while the church structure under the jurisdiction of Constantinople legally enjoys the ownership of churches and all kinds of immovable property including commercial apartment buildings and plots of land among which are those which, before the Soviet nationalization, used to belong to the parishes which were part of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The obstacles to ensuring equal rights to Orthodox believers in Estonia, which continue through no fault of the Moscow Patriarchate, signify that the 1996 Zurich Agreement has remained unrealized, thus making it impossible for the two Patriarchates to begin negotiations on the canonical status of Orthodoxy in Estonia. Therefore, the canonical status of the church organization in jurisdiction of Constantinople remains disputable as Local Orthodox Churches vary in their opinion on this point.

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The issue of prospects for continuation of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and for other pan-Orthodox initiatives in a situation of differences as to the number of Local Orthodox Churches arose repeatedly owing to differences as to the canonical status of the Orthodox Church in America and the Japanese Orthodox Church.

Thus, during the 1st Pan-Orthodox Pre-Council Conference in 1967 in Chambesy, Switzerland, Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon, who chaired it, expressed the position of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, stating that it was impossible for representatives of the Orthodox Church in America to participate in it since its autocephaly was not recognized by all the Orthodox. The Orthodox Church is a system of Local Orthodox Churches recognized by all the Orthodox, he stressed. Besides, he said that we cannot say that the American Church is absent from here because in its overwhelming majority it consists of the Archdiocese of North and South America which is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

If, according to the See of Constantinople, the criterion for the canonical recognition of a community is its numerical superiority then it alone justifies the Moscow Patriarchate’s denial of canonical recognition to the “EAOC”, which is many times inferior numerically to the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. According to the official data of the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, the number of the Orthodox faithful of the Moscow and Constantinople jurisdictions is 170 to 25 thousands respectively.

During the same Pan-Orthodox Conference the chairman described the Japanese Orthodox Church as an improvised Church claiming autonomy. For this reason the Japanese Orthodox Church was also denied participation. To this day neither the Japanese Orthodox Church nor the Orthodox Church in America has ever been represented at such inter-Orthodox events despite repeated proposals for their participation by the Moscow Patriarchate and other Local Orthodox Churches.

Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople in his letter to Patriarch Pimen in 1979 gives the following explanation: We have seen to it that the Inter-Orthodox Theological Commission for (Orthodox-Catholic) Dialogue should include representatives of all those Orthodox Churches which, being recognized as autocephalous and autonomous by all the Orthodox, have participated in Pan-Orthodox Conferences and Inter-Orthodox Theological Commission for dialogue with non-Orthodox Churches. The same letter underlines once again that the Patriarch of Constantinople does not consider it possible for the church parts which have not been recognized as autocephalous or autonomous Churches by all the Orthodox to take part in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church or in preparation for it. Clearly, the same criteria prevent the “EAOC” from participation in the Joint International Commission for theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches.

Therefore, at present the Russian Orthodox Church can continue participating in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue provided the following:

1. Participants in the dialogue are only those Churches whose autocephalous or autonomous status is recognized by all the Local Orthodox Churches. In this case, the participation of the “EAOC” is unacceptable.

2. The dialogue may be attended by all the autocephalous or autonomous Churches recognized as such by at least some of the National Churches if their participation does not mean that their canonical status is recognized by all other participants. In this case, the Orthodox Church in America and the Japanese Orthodox Church as well as the “EAOC” recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople may be invited to participate. In this case it is necessary to consider also the participation of the self-governed Churches who are part of the Moscow Patriarchate. These are the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Orthodox Church of Moldova, Latvian Orthodox Church and the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

3. A compromise settlement is also possible, providing for the participation of representatives of the Churches without fully recognized status as parts of the delegations of their mother Churches. Thus, a representative of Constantinople’s church organization in Estonia could participate in the commission as member of the Patriarchate of Constantinople delegation, and representatives of the Orthodox Church in America, the Japanese Orthodox Church and others as members of the Moscow Patriarchate delegation.

At present, the unilateral actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople have led to a situation where the world largest Local Orthodox Church cannot participate in pan-Orthodox–Catholic dialogue.

As far as documents worked out without the Russian Orthodox Church representatives are concerned, the Moscow Patriarchate does not consider them to be obligatory in any way. It is known that other Local Orthodox Churches also have serious concerns for the progress of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue with regard to ecclesiological issues. Thus, ‘a certain concern’ in this regard was expressed by the Church of Greece in the letter of its Holy Synod to Metropolitan John of Pergamon on 8 October 2007.

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Bishop Nicholas of Ohrida, now canonized by the Serbian Church, speaking at the meeting of the Inter-Orthodox Pre-Council Preparatory Commission in June 1930 in Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos, said, I am sure we all without exception can feel the absence of the Russian Church… What is our conference without the Russian Church? We cannot have either a Pre-Council or Ecumenical Council without the Russian Church as she represents the three fourths of the Orthodox world.

However, while in 1930 the absence of representatives of the Russian Church at a meeting of the Inter-Orthodox Pre-Council Preparatory Commission was caused by the tragic situation of persecution by the godless power against the Church in Russia, nowadays the only reason for the forced absence of the Moscow Patriarchate from pan-Orthodox–Catholic dialogue is a unilateral decision of the Orthodox Church of Constantinople.


May 16, 2008