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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

holy war

a snowy Saturday in mid-March, Archbishop Kornily led upwards of 20,000 people through the narrow, cobbled streets of Tallinn on a procession dedicated, in the words of his spokesman, to "the triumph of Good over every untruth."

The untruth, in this case, had nothing to do with sin or heresy and everything to do with power and property: Archbishop Kornily's march marked a tense

moment in a battle between Russia and Estonia for authority over the country's Orthodox believers which threatens to open the widest rift in the world Orthodox community in more than 500 years.

The archbishop heads the Moscow-backed Orthodox church in Estonia, which serves some 100,000 mostly Russian believers -- the vast majority of the country's Orthodox community. Since 1993, however, he has been the underdog in a fierce struggle for legitimacy that erupted when the Estonian government recognized a small synod of emigr? clerics in Stockholm as the legal heir to the pre-war Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, or EAOC.

Overnight, the archbishop lost his deed to all church property built before 1940, including the country's grandest house of worship, the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn, where he has long presided.

The conflict escalated earlier this year when the Patriarch of Constantinople plucked the EAOC from the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church and took it under his wing. Outraged, Moscow suspended relations with the traditional seat of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Should the synod of the Russian church vote to finalize the schism with Constantinople, which brought the Christian faith to the Slavs a thousand years ago, it would open the deepest division in Eastern Orthodoxy since Moscow first left the fold in 1439, when Constantinople temporarily united with the Papacy at the Council of Florence. That first split lasted for more than a century.

Already, new cracks are showing in the Orthodox community in the wake of the Estonian and Russian moves.

As it broke with Constantinople, Moscow also suspended relations with the Finnish church, whose archbishop, Johannes, was named as the temporary head of the Estonian church until such time as Estonia itself produces a suitable candidate.

The Russian Orthodox church, by far the largest in the Orthodox world, retains jurisdiction over all the smaller churches in the former Soviet Union except those in Georgia and, now, Estonia. But resentment at the Moscow patriarchate for its collusion with the Soviet state rides high. Metropolitan Filaret, head of the breakaway church in Ukraine, said that events in Estonia could help his own drive to break from the Russian church.

"Moscow still retains the essence of an imperialist church," the metropolitan told Reuters in early March. "Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian church wants to keep a church empire in the form of the Moscow patriarchate." The independent Ukrainian church has applied to Constantinople for autocephaly, a high degree of autonomy -- the same appeal granted to the EAOC.

Henn Tosso, a lay member of the EAOC synod, depicts the threat from the Russian church more starkly. "What has happened in Estonia is not the reason for the rift in the Orthodox community, but a consequence. The reason is that the Moscow patriarch, and Russia, have pretensions to running the whole world," he said.

On the other side, the Constantinople patriarchate is seeking to extend its influence. While traditionally first among equals in the Orthodox hierarchy, which lacks a single leader such as the Roman Catholic Pope, the patriarchate has long been stranded in Moslem Turkey, and its local flock has dwindled to only 5,000.

Around the world the Constantinople patriarchate counts some 2 million more members, most in the United States. But according to Dmitri Pospielovsky, an historian of the Orthodox church at the University of Western Ontario, the patriarchate's interest in acquiring additional members and clout, especially at the expense of the huge Russian church, is "obvious."

he conflict also highlights broader tensions between Russia and Estonia over, on the one had, Estonian memories of Russian oppression and, on the other, Russian anger at an unresolved border dispute and Estonia's policies on citizenship and language.

Before the Soviet occupation, Estonia, a predominantly Lutheran country, had some 200,000 Orthodox believers, most of them ethnic Estonians. Fifty years later, after mass deportations of Estonians and an influx of Russians under the Soviets, the situation was turned on its head. Of roughly 100,000 Orthodox, only one-tenth are now Estonian.

The suffering of the Estonian church under the Soviets, who closed nearly half of the country's 158 pre-war parishes, has engendered a deep hostility toward the Russian church here, and a pervasive suspicion of its ties to political power in Moscow.

Examining a map of the 158 Orthodox parishes that existed in Estonia before the Soviet occupation, Tosso, the only EAOC synod member who actually lives in Estonia, sees not just the destruction wrought by the Soviets, but also a road map for another occupation from Russia.

If Archbishop Kornily's church had the right to own property, Tosso said, "they would build walls around the churches, and no one would know what is going on inside. They would cook up some phony provocation, as they did before building military bases during the war, and then cry,'We have to defend our property!' Next thing you know we would have Russian special forces guarding the churches."

The Russians, for their part, are deeply suspicious of Estonian motives in recognizing the EAOC. But Estonia insists the move was a simple bureaucratic procedure.

Under a law passed in May 1993, all churches in Estonia were required to re-register their charters. Two months later, the Stockholm-based synod submitted its original charter, signed in 1935, to the Board of Religious Affairs, together with a list of parishes supporting its petition.

In August 1993 the synod was registered under its historical name, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Here the problems began. Archbishop Kornily submitted his own petition in November, using the same 1935 charter. His application was rejected on the grounds that a church with that name already existed, and his subsequent appeals have been rejected in Estonian courts.

The archbishop immediately cried foul. He defrocked the 10 Estonian priests who had supported the EAOC's registration, and excommunicated Tosso, who runs the church's day-to-day affairs from a spartan office recently returned by the city.

But the real blame the Russian church laid squarely at the doorstep of the Estonian authorities. "The entire conflict in Estonia, the entire problem, arose because of the positions taken by the Board of Religious Affairs located in the Estonian Interior Ministry," Metropolitan Kirill, chief spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, charged after the suspension of relations with Constantinople.

The board's reason for registering the Stockholm synod, the metropolitan said, "is naturally not canonical or theological, but political, and most likely linked to the Estonian government's political relationship with its Orthodox, and especially with its Russophone population, and, not least of all, with the Moscow patriarchate."

Estonian leaders, from President Meri on down, have consistently maintained that the government has not interfered in church affairs, and is barred from doing so by a strict separation of church and state in the Estonian constitution. But the Russians are having none of this.

"The situation has become very tense, as the Russophone population sees its rights encroached upon -- no longer just its civil rights, but its religious rights," said Vyacheslav Ivanov, editor of Estoniya, the country's largest Russian-language newspaper.

"Official statements to the effect that this conflict is not political are simply not believed in the Russian community."

President Boris Yeltsin himself entered the fray in late February of this year, warning Meri that the recognition of the Stockholm synod and restitution of church property "will lead to a wide-scale violation of the rights of Russian citizens and ethnic Russians, which cannot but elicit a most negative reaction from our government."

According to Vello Pettai, a professor at Tartu University, this charge fails to appreciate the legal basis of the Estonian government's decision.

"I am sure that some Estonians do not mind having the chance to take a jab at Moscow through the legalities of property restitution and the denial of the Moscow-backed church, all the more so given that the historical impression of the Russian Orthodox Church has always been tightly linked to the political and foreign policy aims of the Russian government," Pettai said.

"However, the main conflict in Estonia stems from the forcible takeover of an autonomous church in 1944 by the Soviets, and that question had to be dealt with from the Estonian legal point of view," he said.

or the average Orthodox parishioner in Estonia, the war between church and government leaders has led to an anguished choice, as the country's 84 parishes have had to choose between Moscow and Constantinople. Fifty-four primarily Estonian parishes have opted to back the official church, while the remaining, mostly Russian, parishes wish to remain under Russian jurisdiction.

There is little doubt that the fears and frustrations of ethnic Russian believers in Estonia have been whipped up by the clergy for their own ends. Father Vyacheslav Silvesterov, who presides at Tallinn's Church of Kazan, told Keston News Service recently that he would never hand over his church to the EAOC, going so far as to denounce the Estonian brand of Orthodoxy as a false faith.

If he and his ethnic Russian parishioners were forced from their churches, Father Vyacheslav told KNS, "We would burn them down with ourselves in them so that all the world would know that Estonia has a fascist government."

Tatyana Kotyukh, a member of the choir at the Church of Kazan, considers her priest's shrill declarations as irresponsible at best. "I thought long and hard about this choice, and this was connected with the fact that the choice was imposed by the priests, whom you have more faith in than in other people, because they are your spiritual leaders," she said.

"People have been reluctant to break with their priests, whom they had known for years, who were very important in their lives, but at the same time a doubt arose about their motives. I finally decided that I had the right to choose for myself," Kotyukh said. She continues to attend the church, but has worked for a reconciliation of Estonia's divided parishes, writing articles and meeting with officials in church and state.

Nor does the choice break cleanly along ethnic lines. When Archbishop Kornily visited Tartu recently to meet with the Orthodox faithful at the Church of the Assumption, the city's largest, he found himself locked out and forbidden by the local priest from meeting with parishioners on the grounds.

The archbishop had, undoubtedly, expected a different reception. The parish priest, Father Simeon Kruzhkov, is ethnic Russian, as is the huge majority of his congregation -- the very people that the archbishop can usually rely on.

Most Russians have sided with Archbishop Kornily and Moscow, while most Estonians have gone over to Constantinople. But Father Kruzhkov and his flock decided to go against the grain, leaving the archbishop out in the cold.

Undaunted, however, Archbishop Kornily crossed the river that flows through Tartu and visited a second Orthodox church with an entirely Estonian congregation and an Estonian priest, Father Alexander Aim. And here, just as unexpectedly, he found the doors wide open, for Aim and his church wish to remain loyal to Moscow.

he roots of the conflict stretch at least to 1918, when Estonia first proclaimed itself an independent country. Until that time the Orthodox church in Estonia had fallen under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.

In 1920 the Russian patriarch, Tikhon, granted wide autonomy to the Estonian

church in recognition of the country's new status, without surrendering his jurisdiction. The Russian church in this period was suffering an all-out assault from the Bolsheviks, and Tikhon himself spent a year in prison from mid-1922.

The Patriarch of Constantinople, Meletios, intervened in 1923, extending his jurisdiction over the Estonian church. Twelve years later the EAOC registered its charter, which the current Estonian authorities consider never to have lapsed during its years in exile.

During World War II, Estonia was occupied once by Nazi Germany and twice by the Soviet Union, who finally annexed the Baltic state by force in 1944, and in this period the history of the church became terribly tangled.

Metropolitan Alexander, head of the EAOC, and 21 members of the clergy fled the country in 1944, during the second Soviet occupation, first to Germany and later to Stockholm, where in 1947 they established a synod in exile. This synod remained under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

In early March 1945, the pro-Moscow Narva Diocesan Council met in special session. According to the official protocol from this session, the primary order of business was "the liquidation of the Synod" of the EAOC, and the "foundation of a new Diocesan Council of the Diocese of Estonia and Tallinn." Taking part in this session was a certain Father Ridiger, whose son would go on to become the Metropolitan of Tallinn, and later Patriarch Alexy II, the present head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This protocol gives the lie to claims made by Archbishop Kornily and Russian church leaders that the Soviet-installed church is the direct descendent of the pre-war EAOC.

In 1978, Constantinople suspended the original 1923 tome, or decree, that extended jurisdiction over the Estonian church. Moscow has pointed to this in condemning the recent action taken by Constantinople. But Constantinople has insisted that "the tome was not regarded as being void, invalid or revoked."

After the Stockholm synod was recognized by the Estonian government as the legal heir to the pre-war church, the name game began. Archbishop Kornily realized that all church property, under laws on restitution of property to its pre-1940 owners, would belong to whichever church bore the name of the EAOC.

The archbishop and others insisted that their church had "historically" been called the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, and claimed the 1935 charter as their own. But public records tell a rather different story.

A document dated February 1945, which inquires of a Comrade Korsakov whether "nationalization of church buildings and cultural properties on the territory of the Estonian SSR had been carried out," refers not to a church at all, but to the "Council on Russian Orthodox Church Affairs of the USSR Council of People's Commissars for the Estonian SSR."

A tome issued by Russian Patriarch Alexy II in 1993 refers simply to the Estonian Orthodox Church, and this name appeared on Kornily's own letterhead as late as August 1993 -- after the Stockholm synod had already registered. Only thereafter did the Moscow-backed church insert the crucial word "apostolic."

rospects for reconciliation of the conflict both within Estonia and in the wider Orthodox world are slim. In Estonia such a lack of trust pervades the relationship between the Moscow-backed church, the EAOC and the government that their pronouncements simply fall on deaf ears.

Typical were the demands made by Yeltsin in his letter to Meri. To prevent an "open conflict," Yeltsin said, the Estonian government would have to give "firm guarantees" to all