Saturday 15 January 2000
HOW DOES THE RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH FUNCTION IN
ESTONIA WITHOUT REGISTRATION?

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service


Ever since the recognition in 1993 by the Estonian government of the Estonian
Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC) as the sole legitimate heir of the prewar
Orthodox Church in Estonia (especially of its property), the branch of the
Russian Orthodox Church in the country has functioned without state
registration. Although Estonian legislation does not require religious groups to
register per se, the Russian Church has been disadvantaged. Its own
representatives claim it is being persecuted, while state officials say the lack of
registration is the Russian Church's own fault. But how can Estonia's second-
largest religious group function without any status in law?

`They don't know how to deal with us,' explains Father LEONTI MOROZKIN,
priest of the parish of the Mother of God of All Mourners in the suburb of
Kopli in north western Tallinn and press spokesman for Archbishop KORNILI
of Tallinn and All Estonia, the senior Russian cleric in the country. `We don't
have legal personality and so we can't own property. We cannot therefore make
a church building parish property. We cannot obtain guarantees for pensions
for priests and other church staff such as bookkeepers. We give money to the
pension fund and they do accept it, but it is not in the law. A parish cannot have
a bank account, although some banks are prepared to maintain accounts at their
own risk under special agreements. They receive minutes of our meetings.'

The lack of registration severely impacts on the Church's ability to organise.
Although some parishes and entities retain bank accounts from before 1993 -
some even dating back to the Soviet period - ROC entities have not been able
to start new bank accounts since 1993. Father Morozkin's parish is no
exception. `We have a Soviet-era bank account, but we are afraid to use it in
case it will be blocked,' he told Keston in an interview on 8 January in his
small church. A few other churches have got round this problem. St Nicholas'
church in Tallinn's old city has registered a Society of St Nicholas as a non-
commercial organisation, which has thus been able to start a bank account, as
Father OLEG VRONA told Keston on 8 January. He explained that the bank
account does not actually belong to the parish, but is used by the parish to
channel tax payments to the government. Father Morozkin reports that
arrangements such as that at St Nicholas' church are an exception and most
parishes have no functioning bank account.

As unregistered religious organisations, entities of the Russian Orthodox
Church are not entitled to tax exemption but nor are they authorised to pay
taxes. `The Russian Orthodox cannot even pay taxes as they are not allowed to
make any transactions as a church as they are not a legal entity,' declared
ILMO AU, head of the religious board at the Interior Ministry in an interview
with Keston on 5 January. In their legal limbo Russian churches have not been
forced to pay taxes on contributions they receive from the faithful. `We don't
pay tax on property or land, and nor do we pay tax on our collections,' Father
Morozkin told Keston. `But we do pay tax on priests' income.' However, the
government has not prevented parishes from making contributions directly to
the church headquarters in Tallinn. Father Morozkin's parish pays over
annually some 8,000 to 10,000 kroons [$530-660].

The inability of the Russian Church to acquire property has meant a
continuation of the Soviet-era practice under which church buildings were
owned by the local authorities and granted to religious groups for their use
under rental agreements without payment. However, as entities which are not
empowered to enter legal agreements, Russian Orthodox parishes continue to
use church buildings without any agreement. `We are considered as the tenants
and we consider ourselves as tenants even though there are no written
agreements,' Father Morozkin declares, adding that the situation is different
with the EAOC which has state registration. `They are recognised as the
owners of their property and their parishes have registration. The EAOC
intends to take over our property and they are trying to register our property as
their own.' Father Vrona told Keston that there have been suggestions that St
Nicholas' church should be handed over into ownership of the EAOC or the
Interior Ministry, with the possibility that either of these bodies could rent it to
the ROC parish. He complained of recent government indications that all
denominational property should be directly subordinated to the denomination's
leadership, rather than being under the control of the local religious community
that uses it.

ROC entities have retained their telephone lines, but are not listed in the
Estonian telephone directory, something the Russian-speaking Father Leonti
Morozkin seemed unaware of until Keston pointed it out to him. The telephone
directory for 2000 lists all the congregations of the EAOC and - for the first
time - the cathedral of St Alexander Nevsky in Tallinn, which gained state
registration in a curious deal in March 1999. However, no other ROC parish is
listed and nor is the Church's administrative headquarters at Pikk street in
Tallinn.

Registered communities that invite religious workers from abroad are
exempted from the state visa fee, Ilmo Au told Keston, but as an unregistered
religious group the ROC is not authorised to invite religious workers from
abroad to come to work in Estonia. `We cannot invite priests to the country,'
Father Morozkin confirmed. There were some cases a few years ago when our
priests couldn't get residence permits and one priest had to go back to Russia.'
However, Au confirms that Russian Patriarch ALEKSI, who was born in
Estonia, would be allowed to make a visit to his communities in the country if
he wished. `In February 1999 I went to congratulate the patriarch on the
occasion of his seventieth birthday,' Au declared, `and he expressed the hope to
come to the country of his birth. There are no obstacles set by our state. Should
the patriarch wish it he could get Estonian citizenship.'

The lack of registration and the failure of many of the clergy and believers to
speak Estonian have left the Russian Church outside the mainstream of
Estonian life in other ways. The church headquarters in Tallinn appears to have
remained unchanged since the Soviet days. Keston could see no sign even of a
computer when it visited the office. The most sophisticated equipment it
appeared to have was a fax machine. Father Leonti Morozkin, who is
Archbishop Kornili's press spokesman, told Keston that he has no e-mail
address through which communications could be maintained with him. Nor
does the church have a website, unlike many of Estonia's other religious
communities (many Lutheran parishes, for example, have their own websites in
addition to a large site for the Lutheran Consistory in Tallinn). While other
Churches seem moderately well funded by co-religionists abroad, especially to
provide a well-equipped central administration, the Russian Orthodox Church
seems to be underfunded.

The Russian Church is also restricted in its ecumenical contacts. The Council
of Churches was originally set up in Estonia in February 1989 with the backing
of the then senior hierarch Metropolitan Aleksi of Leningrad, who was also
administrator of the Diocese of Tallinn (he is now Patriarch of Moscow and All
Rus). However, following the split in 1993 the Orthodox Church - by now
divided between factions loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical
Patriarchate in Istanbul - voluntarily withdrew from the Council until its
internal problems were resolved. Both the Russian Church and the EAOC have
been pushing to rejoin the Council. Metropolitan STEPHANOS told Keston
that his Church has rejoined after having forced the Lutheran Church to allow
their re-entry. He claimed that some senior figures in the Lutheran Church had
tried to block the readmission of the EAOC for fear of upsetting the Moscow
Patriarchate, with which they wished to maintain good relations. Metropolitan
Stephanos told Keston that he wished to see the Russian Church also allowed
to rejoin. Father Morozkin confirmed Stephanos' view that the Lutheran
Church was sympathetic towards the Russian Orthodox Church. He said the
Russian Church ought to have membership as of right as one of the founder
members.

Although the dispute over membership of the Council of Churches may appear
to be solely an inter-Church dispute, it also has political ramifications. Some
church figures told Keston the state is trying to establish the Council of
Churches as the authentic representative of the religious communities, despite
the fact that it is a Council set up on theological bases and which accepts as
members only Christian Churches that accept Trinitarian doctrine (even then it
is not obliged to accept applicants any one of its Churches objects to). Since the
early 1990s the government has dispensed money to the Council to share
among its members as it sees fit. Ilmo Au, chairman of the religious board in
the Ministry of the Interior, denied to Keston that this effectively discriminates
against religious groups that are not in the Council. However, the opposition of
the religious board to Russian Orthodox membership of the Council of
Churches seems likely to keep the Church out of this ecumenical body and
excluded from participation in negotiations with the state on matters of
concern. For example, only representatives from Churches in the Council were
appointed to the working group set up to draw up the draft text of the proposed
new law on religion. Au told Keston that his office would not and did not make
available texts of the draft to religious groups who were not represented in the
working group. When Father Morozkin discussed with Keston the Russian
Church's objections to the proposed draft law, which had been discussed by the
Estonian cabinet on 4 January, it soon became clear that he had little clear
information about the latest status of the discussions. His complaints were
based on a draft text of 30 June 1998, which a member of his Church had
translated for him from Estonian (which he and many of his Church do not
understand) into Russian. His lack of up-to-date knowledge cannot solely be
explained by language difficulties. The secrecy surrounding the drafting of the
new proposed law has affected his Church, as well as even some registered
religious communities outside the Council of Churches.

Who is to blame for the ROC's lack of state registration? Asked by Keston
whether the religious board would register the ROC if it applied under any
name apart from the EAOC, which is already taken by their rivals, Ilmo Au
answered in pointedly general terms, declaring that any religious group can
apply for registration at any time and, provided it does not lay claim to a name
already taken by a registered religious community and that its statute accords
with current legislation, it will receive registration. Asked again about a
possible application by the ROC, Au replied: `I have been waiting for such an
application since 1993.'

The Russian Orthodox have been reluctant to apply for registration under a
different name as they believe this would entail recognising that they did not
have the right to inherit all the Orthodox property in Estonia which the prewar
Church owned and much of which they are still using. `We would be happy to
register with the state if registration did not decide the status of property,'
Father Morozkin told Keston.

Talks between the EAOC and representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate over
registration and use of property have been continuing, but have so far failed to
break the logjam. The most recent meeting took place on 25 November 1999
between Ilmo Au, Metropolitan Stephanos and the Moscow Patriarchate's
representative in Estonia Archimandrite YELISEI GANABA of the
Department for External Church Relations in Moscow (who was appointed by
the Russian Holy Synod at its meeting in March/April 1999). `The discussion
mainly concerned property, but nothing was decided,' Au reported. `Both
parties simply presented their positions. Metropolitan Stephanos told the
Russian representative that as soon as the Russian Orthodox Church is
registered he would agree to put church buildings at their disposal.'

There have so far been two curious exemptions to the failure to register any
Russian Orthodox communities. Under a special arrangement the Puhtitsa
convent in eastern Estonia was registered, while more recently the Alexander
Nevsky cathedral in Tallinn was registered. On 16 March 1999 the Nevsky
parish was registered as a new religious community under the direct patronage
of Patriarch Aleksi, as reflected in its civil designation the `Stauropegial Parish
of St Alexander Nevsky in Tallinn', an arrangement accepted by the parish two
days earlier. This means the parish also functions as the representation of the
Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia. `The task of the representation is to maintain
contacts with Orthodox and other Christian confessions in Estonia and
cooperation with state and public structures of the Republic of Estonia in
regulating church problem in Estonia and improving relations between the
Russian Orthodox Church and the Estonian state,' explained a press release
from the Moscow Patriarchate of 17 March 1999. The press release made clear
that the parish remained subject to the authority of Archbishop Kornili. `This
Church is a canonical part of the Autocephalous Russian Orthodox Church in
the territory of Estonia and enjoys the right of autonomy (self government) in
ecclesio-administrative, ecclesio-economic, ecclesio-educational and ecclesio-
civil affairs on the basis of the decision made by Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow
and All Russia (28 June 1920) and reconfirmed by the Tomos of His Holiness
Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow and All Russia (27 April 1993).'

This rather ambiguous compromise over registration of the Nevsky cathedral
parish seems unlikely to be followed by other ROC communities. Few in the
ROC, the EAOC or the state have hopes that there will be a solution soon to the
legal disputes surrounding the Russian Church in Estonia. All the parties are
sticking to their positions. However, the continuing existence of the ROC on
the ground in Estonia and continued functioning of their parishes shows that
the Church has not been crushed by the legal difficulties caused by the lack of
registration. `The Russian Orthodox have shown that you do not need legal
registration to be able to function in Estonia,' one Protestant pastor in Tallinn
told Keston with grudging admiration. (END)

All Keston News Service material is protected by copyright:
(c) Keston Institute 2000