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Russian Church branded security threat to Estonia  

17 May 2024


Domes on top of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn

Domes on top of the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn

MEMBERS of the Estonian parliament, the Riigikogu, voted overwhelmingly on 6 May in favour of designating the Russian Orthodox Church as an “institution that is sponsoring the military aggression of the Russian Federation”.

A statement from the Riigikogu clarifies that this move is aimed not at the Orthodox faithful, but at the Russian Orthodox Church as an “institution and a directing body”.

The move by the lawmakers in Tallinn is a direct response to the “Holy War” declaration adopted by the World Russian People’s Council (WRPC) in March, under the chairmanship of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow (News, 5 April).

In a declaration, the WRPC, a Russian public forum under the patronage of the Russian Orthodox Church, described President Putin’s war as “a national liberation struggle of the Russian people against the criminal Kyiv regime and the collective West”, and called for the restoration of the “Russian World”.

The declaration outlined the boundaries of the “Russian World” as “spiritual, cultural, and civilisational phenomenon [that] are significantly wider than the state borders of both the current Russian Federation and the historical Russia”.

Patriarch Kirill’s move was seen as a step too far in neighbouring Estonia, which now considers the Russian Orthodox Church as a threat to its national security.

“The calls of the Moscow Patriarchate contain an inherent danger to Estonia’s security and survival, including a direct threat to the public and constitutional order in Estonia,” the Riigikogu statement reads.

“The leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarch Kirill are using the Russian World ideology as a tool to promote the war; it is utilised to destroy the last manifestations of Russian democracy, militarise Russian society, and justify the aggression in order to extend the Russian Federation to all the territories dominated by it in the past, including Ukraine.”

The final text of the statement has undergone changes during the past few weeks. A notable difference is that it stays away from the original intention of the Estonian Minister of the Interior, Lauri Läänemets, to declare the Moscow Patriarchate a terrorist organisation.

AlamyAn off-duty soldier during a joint exercise by the Estonian Defence Forces and NATO allies in Pärnu, Estonia, on Wednesday

Ever since the Russian aggression in Ukraine, Estonian authorities have been on high alert over the functioning of the Estonian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (EOC-MP). It is one of the two Orthodox Churches operating in the country, and has about 100,000 adherents.

The EOC-MP is canonically subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church, and has refused to sever ties with Moscow, despite repeated calls to do so by Estonian government officials. The second and smaller Church, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, is an autonomous Church under the Ecumenical Patriarch.

EOC-MP’s relationship with the state has been strained lately, as the Estonian Ministry of the Interior is trying to find ways to permanently disconnect it from the Russian Orthodox Church.

In February, the Estonian government refused to extend the residence permit of the Primate of the EOC-MP, the Russian-born Metropolitan Evgeniy, and asked him to leave the country, referring to national security concerns. Hierarchs of this Church were repeatedly called to the Ministry of the Interior to explain their Church’s position in response to the rhetoric coming from Moscow.

The country’s top politicians are concerned by Moscow’s canonical links. Last month, Mr Läänemets tried to persuade the leadership of the Kuremäe Convent, located in the country’s north-east and under directly subordinate to Moscow, to terminate its ties with the Russian Church; failure to do so would result in judicial intervention.

“A voluntary path would be the best option,” he said. “If they fail to take those decisions themselves, we will have to move for compulsory dissolution via the courts at some point.”

Ministry of the Interior representatives have previously suggested that one way out of this situation would be for the EOC-MP congregations to join the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC).

Fr Mattias Palli, of the EAOC, is not currently involved in any negotiations, but remains open to the possibility of future engagement: “We could call it a vicariate, or a kind of auxiliary bishopric. We’ll come up with the name, but the idea is that they would not have to fear being assimilated, while we wouldn’t have to be wary of the problems this would create.”

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