ESTONIA: Moscow Orthodox Church Finally Registered.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 19 April 2002

Estonia's Interior Ministry has finally registered the branch of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in the Baltic state, ending a legal wrangle that has blighted relations between the Tallinn and Moscow governments since 1993, when the Estonian government registered a rival Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Ilmo Au, head of the department for religious affairs at the Interior Ministry, told Keston News Service from the Estonian capital today (18 April) that his ministry had registered the statute of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate the previous day, together with those of three of its parishes, and that the Church's leader, Metropolitan Kornily (Jakobs) of Tallinn and All Estonia, and a delegation of priests had visited his ministry today to collect the registration certificates from the Interior Minister Ain Seppik.

"It is good that we have now been able to register our Church with a statute that is in accord with our conscience," Father Toomas Hirvoja, secretary to the church synod, told Keston from Tallinn on 18 April. "I think they are happy with the situation now," Au declared of the Moscow Orthodox. Father Hirvoja (one of those who accompanied Metropolitan Kornily to the ministry to collect the certificates) attributed the registration to the change of government in January, which saw a coalition of the Centre and the Reform parties come to power. The previous government had given strong backing to the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC) headed by Metropolitan Stefanos (Charalambidis) under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Speaking to journalists in Moscow on 18 April, the Estonian-born Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksi welcomed the registration, describing it as the "first step" on the path to resolving the Church's problems in Estonia, particularly that of property.

Both Father Hirvoja and Au reported that the newly-registered Church now has three registered parishes, two in Tallinn and one in the town of Maardu close to the capital, out of a total in Estonia of just over thirty Moscow Patriarchate parishes. "These were the ones whose applications we had already been able to file," Father Hirvoja declared. "The rest will follow as soon as we can manage it." In addition to the Metropolitan, the Moscow church has 35 priests - the majority of them Estonian citizens - as well as more than ten deacons, Father Hirvoja reported.

The main issue holding up registration for the past decade has been the question of who owns Orthodox property, held by the Moscow Patriarchate until 1923, from then until the Soviet occupation of Estonia during the Second World War by the Church under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and then handed by the Soviet government to the Moscow Patriarchate. Au said that the newly-registered statute had not mentioned property issues. "This will be covered in different contracts," he told Keston. Nor did registration of the statute entail state recognition of any continuity with the pre-war Estonian Orthodox Church, he added.

The Puhtitsa convent in eastern Estonia was registered as a patriarchal (stavropegial) convent in October 1997, while the Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Tallinn was registered as a patriarchal (stavropegial) church in March 1999, both on the application of Patriarch Aleksi. Until this week's decision to grant registration to the Moscow Church, these were the only two entities of the Moscow Church which had legal status. All its other parishes and institutions were functioning in legal limbo (see KNS 15 January 2000).

Au confirmed that now the Church has registration, it will be able to carry out functions previously denied to it and will also be eligible to receive government funding for maintaining buildings and carrying out social projects.

Father Hirvoja agrees that property remains an unresolved issue. "It is bad that the property of our parishes claimed by the Constantinople Church has still not been resolved." The EAOC has agreed to hand the churches it does not need (which are currently being used by the Moscow Church) to the Estonian government. The government is then due to assign them to the Moscow Church's use on a permanent basis, although no agreements have yet been signed. "The Moscow Church will be able to continue to use them, while the state actually owns them," Au told Keston. He puts the number of such churches at "about 25", though Father Hirvoja says there are only "15 to 17". Au added that the Moscow Church will now be able to take full legal ownership of the churches it has rebuilt or built since the Second World War, which he put at "4 or 5".

"Each of our parishes has its own church building," Father Hirvoja noted, "except for the parish in Paldiski, where a church is still being built." He believed the newly-granted registration will simplify permission to build new churches, as individual parishes will now have legal status.

The EAOC has 59 registered parishes and owns all 59 parish churches it currently uses.

While Father Hirvoja said his Church faced no other serious obstructions to its work, he noted that paperwork to invite priests from Russia can still be difficult. "There can be problems getting residence permits. But this doesn't depend on registration - it is the same for anyone."

Father Hirvoja welcomed the new law on religion which was finally adopted at the end of February after being vetoed last September by then president Lennart Meri (see KNS 14 September 2001) and in January by the new president Arnold Ruutel. Father Hirvoja particularly welcomed the transfer of registration from the Interior Ministry to a court, which takes effect when the law enters into force on 1 July. "It is important that registration of religious organisations will be handled by a judicial rather than an executive authority," he declared. "This will make the process more neutral." (END)