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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Alexy Seeks to Heal Church Rift

Russian Patriarch Alexy II has expressed hope that a solution can be found to a rift between the Russian Orthodox Church and the parent Constantinople Patriarchate before a suspension of relations becomes a full-blown schism.

The patriarch suspended communion with Constantinople on Feb. 23, but the final decision resides with the Council of Bishops.

"Steps are being taken on both sides to resolve the conflict, so there may be no need to convene the council. But if need be, it will be convened," the patriarch said Sunday at the Greek Embassy in Moscow during an event ironically commemorating Orthodox unity.

Metropolitan Yuvenaly, a top spokesman for the Russian church, told reporters Monday that these steps included direct correspondence between the two patriarchates and a mission set up in the Greek Embassy to act as a go-between for the two churches.

The Greek Embassy declined to comment on the mission Monday.

The conflict has its roots in the Estonian government's 1993 decision to recognize the "church in exile," set up in Stockholm in 1947, as the legitimate successor of the pre-war Estonian Orthodox Church, snubbing a rival church installed by Moscow at the end of World War II. The recognition brought with it the ownership of all church property in Estonia, a move which the Russian church has been fighting.

Last month, Constantinople extended its jurisdiction over the Estonian church, giving its imprimatur to the Estonian stance and effectively dismissing Moscow's historical claims.

Leaders of the Russian church have given no hint they might be ready to compromise in the split.

Metropolitan Kirill, chairman of the church's External Relations Department, blamed Constantinople for the rift. "The Moscow Patriarchate did not cease prayerful and canonical relations with Constantinople. The Constantinople Patriarchate, while not announcing this, de facto broke relations with the Russian Church on Estonian territory, and therefore between the two churches," he said.

Orthodox canonical law forbids one church from intervening in the affairs of another, the metropolitan said, and when Constantinople absorbed the Estonian church, historically under Moscow's jurisdiction until 1923, it violated this law.

Metropolitan Kirill laid blame for the original conflict between Estonia's two Orthodox churches exclusively on the Estonian government.

But according to Mari-Anne Heljas, a legal expert in the Estonian Interior Ministry, the Moscow-backed church never complied with Estonia's new law on religious organizations, implemented in 1993, by failing to submit a copy of its charter, one of the requirements for registration.

The Moscow-backed church demands to register under its "historic name," the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, but the Stockholm-based church has already done so. If it were to register under another name, Metropolitan Kirill said, "it would forfeit all rights to the cathedrals it today possesses."

Henn Tosso, the official Estonian church's representative in Tallinn, said this commonly expressed fear was unfounded. Moreover, "Constantinople is prepared to build new churches so that we can abandon the old ones now used by the Russians. We do not need them," he said.