Magazine article The Christian Century

Rift Threatens Orthodoxy

Magazine article The Christian Century

Rift Threatens Orthodoxy

Article excerpt


AS THE Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexsy II presided at a liturgy February 23 in Moscow's Cathedral of the Epiphany, he omitted from the day's prayers the name of the pre-eminent leader of Orthodox Christians worldwide, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I. It was a startling omission--the first time in the 1,008-year history of the Russian Orthodox Church that the well-being of the ecumenical patriarch was not mentioned in the litany of petitions.

Alexsy's failure to pray for Bartholomeos was the first public acknowledgment of a profound rift between the 100 million-member Russian Orthodox Church--the single largest Eastern Orthodox body--and the man who is considered the ultimate authority, or "first among equals," for some 250 million Orthodox Christians around the world. Surrounded by 50 bishops of the Russian Orthodox Synod, Alexsy then declared a "break in communion" with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and directed Russian Orthodox clergy to cease celebrating liturgies with clergy who remain under Bartholomeos's jurisdiction.

At the heart of the dispute between Bartholomeos and Alexsy is the autonomy of the Orthodox Church of Estonia, whose 60,000 members historically have been under Russian control. Just what this all means remains to be seen, according to Orthodox observers in the U.S. and Europe (none of whom was willing to be quoted). At the very least, the rift between Alexsy of Moscow and Bartholomeos, who resides in Istanbul, represents a hierarchical squabble in the Orthodox family, which includes 16 independent ethnic churches. At worst, it could signal a major split in Orthodoxy worldwide.

The dispute is fast becoming highly politicized and is now causing deep concern among diplomats in Eastern Europe. Patriarch Alexsy has been in contact with Russian President Boris Yeltsin and with President Bill Clinton regarding the Estonian conflict. The Greek government's embassy in Moscow is trying to end the dispute between the two churches--a dispute which could, Moscow observers warned, extend far beyond the issue of Estonia and become a battle for jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians in other former Soviet republics.

The Russian Interfax news agency reported on March 1 that Yeltsin had sent an official message to Estonia's President Lennart Meri, "expressing his concern over the events in the Orthodox community in Estonia." The Estonian government denies any violation of Orthodox Christians' rights. When Yeltsin's message was handed to him by the Russian ambassador in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, President Meri emphasized that Estonian legislation about churches simply "restores the relations which existed in the republic before it was occupied by the Red Army" and that such matters should be decided by churchgoers. But the Moscow Patriarchate charged that the Estonian government's supposed neutrality is a myth and added that the communities faithful to the church in Moscow are now under threat of being evicted from their churches.

During a March 4 press conference in Moscow leading Russian Orthodox Church officials laid the blame for the conflict on the Estonian government and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. "Evidently, there are political, not ecclesiastical, reasons at the core of the conflict," said Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, chairman of the Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations. Kirill claimed that if the Estonian policy were not supported by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, "the situation would have soon settled down." A Moscow theologian involved in official contacts between the patriarchates reportedly remarked that "Constantinople has generals but no army. They are strong as long as other Orthodox churches line up behind them."

A representative of the Estonian Orthodox Church linked to the Russian church, Vyacheslav Seliverstov, told the Moscow press conference that most Orthodox Christians in Estonia are ethnic Russians who want to remain under the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Moscow. …

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