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2022

Estonian Orthodox Churches and the war in Ukraine

Unlike in other Baltic states, there are two Orthodox churches in Estonia: the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is part of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

Before the war, the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Yevgeny of Tallinn and all Estonia, had already gained attention with controversial statements about Ukraine. On 5 February 2022, the largest Estonian daily Postimees published an article about the aggression of the Russian Orthodox Church in Africa, i.e. the invasion of the territory of the patriarchate of Alexandria, which also serves the political goals of the Russian authorities. As a response, Metropolitan Yevgeny published an article, claiming that the ROC rejected accusations that the church was engaged in politics.

Yevgeny is the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate since 2018 and was nominated to this position by the Patriarchate of Moscow. He had no significant contact with Estonia before his election. Soon after his election he was mentioned in the yearbook of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service, because under his leadership the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate joined the propaganda campaign against the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was created in early 2019, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople, who had supported the creation of the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Regarding Yevgeny’s views, the Foreign Intelligence Service considered it necessary to note that he had already visited Crimea in the spring of 2014, i.e. immediately after its annexation by the Russian Federation.

After the full-scale war started in February 2022, Yevgeny continued using the same arguments, although it is evident that the Russian Orthodox Church is directly involved in the war. Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, has repeatedly denied to Ukraine statehood and the right for self-determination.

The speech of Patriarch Kirill on February 24, when the war began, was published a day later on the website of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. On March 2 Metropolitan Yevgeny issued a statement of his own. He repeated his understanding that the church had nothing to do with politics. He called for prayer for peace soon, but there was no mention of his condemnation of Russian aggression in his statement. He also said that political divisions and war must not divide Christians.

The vague statements made by Yevgeny after the Russian aggression caused a debate in Estonian press and social media in early March as to whether the activities of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate should be restricted or banned in Estonia. At the same time, several Orthodox members of the Moscow Patriarchate congregations, led by the world-famous composer Arvo Pärt, appealed to Patriarch Kirill with a request to speak up for an immediate end of the war. Among the signatories were Orthodoxes from Russia, Belarus, European countries and the United States.

On March 7, the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC), under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, passed a statement calling for peace in Ukraine as soon as possible and condemning Russia’s unjust war of conquest. The EAOC statement also emphasised that people must not be misled by sleazy news and propaganda that try to downplay or justify this terrible war. The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, in cooperation with the Ukrainian community, is organising in several cities services for war refugees who have arrived in Estonia. Other churches, including Lutherans, Catholics and Free Churches, are also providing assistance to war refugees.

The Council of Estonian Churches, which brings together ten Estonian Christian religious associations, had at first a modest position and did not rush to speak on Ukraine. The president of the Estonian Council of Churches Andres Põder, who retired 1st of April, even managed to defend the vague position of the Council in Estonian media and claimed that the Estonian Council of Churches had issued a few days before the war a prophetic a statement for peace, also defending Yevgeny’s statement and not doubting his sincerity. He was probably hoping with this to keep the council together and avoid conflicts. Realising the absurdity of the latter statement, nearly a month after the beginning of the war, the Council finally adopted a proper statement on March 17. It referred to a document adopted by the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s aggression and expressed solidarity with the position of the UN. Attacks on civilian targets were condemned separately. The document was also signed by Metropolitan Yevgeny of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Unfortunately, this did not achieve any change in understanding of the leader of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia. On March 30 he gave an interview in which he refused to recognise Russia as an aggressor and admitted that at the request of their church, the reference to Vladimir Putin was left out from the statement of the Council of Churches. He said he had agreed with the statement of the Council of Churches, but left it to each person to decide who was to blame for the war and who was the aggressor. Yevgeny said that, because he was not familiar with politics, he could not say who was to blame for the war, adding that he had instead heard the Russian side claiming that the Russian attack was preventive in order to prevent an attack on Ukraine a few days later. According to him, the responsibility for resolving the conflict also laid on the West.

This absurd position is fundamentally in line with that of Patriarch Kirill, who in recent months has spoken of foreign enemies of Russia and Ukraine trying to drive a wedge between the two peoples. Thus, of course, there was no criticism of Kirill from Yevgeny. Yevgeny also testified that on March 20, i.e. nearly a month after the war, he attended the liturgy with Kirill at the cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, saying that his participation had been decided a long time ago.

It is difficult to say whether it is a fear to express one’s position, as it is in the case for some clergy in Russia, or sympathy for the actions of the Russian authorities, or if Yevgeniy is just a simple-minded person, who thinks that the ROC can be excluded from politics when it is a major ideological pillar of the Russian world and of the aggression against Ukraine. In any case, the position of the head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and his political line make it difficult to provide Russian-speaking Orthodox people living in Estonia with adequate information about the war in Ukraine, and this is a problem both for Estonian society, and specifically for the Orthodox community which is part of the society.

D 23 June 2022    APriit Rohtmets

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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