East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring 1997, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Divisions in Eastern Orthodoxy Today

Janice Broun

Recent disputes and schisms in Eastern Orthodox churches often have their origin in historically rooted disputes over proper jurisdictional boundaries between the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and the Patriarch of Moscow. Communist manipulation of churches has made matters worse. From the fifteenth century, with Constantinople and the Balkans under Ottoman Muslim domination, only Muscovy among major Orthodox land, remained independent. Styling itself as the "Third Rome," Moscow assumed the role of protector of Orthodoxy. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the Ottoman Empire fragmented, allowing Balkan Orthodox churches linked with the struggle for national independence to emerge and achieve autocephaly (self-governing status). However, following World War II, Soviet imperialism brought most East European Orthodox churches back under the aegis of the Moscow Patriarchate. Today several of these churches have reasserted their independence. At the same time they struggle with church establishments corrupted by Communist infiltration, in addition to more recent alliances with neo-Communists and nationalists.

Schisms in Orthodox churches today do not involve doctrine. Nevertheless, they cause deep distress to the faithful because they fracture the unity of the church based on common faith and worship, sacramental communion, and apostolic tradition. Paradoxically, Orthodox unity in Europe is exercised in plurality through 15 autocephalous, usually national, churches. Besides the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, the autocephalous churches include Russia, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria, headed by patriarchs; Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland, Albania, and Sinai, headed by either archbishops or metropolitans; and Georgia, led by a Catholicos-Patriarch. In addition, several "autonomous" churches are self-governing in most respects but not yet fully independent, plus ecclesiastical provinces dependent upon one of the autocephalous churches. Although the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartolemaos is honored as primus interpares, first among equals, he is not the equivalent of a Catholic pope in authority. He may offer advice, but he has no power to interfere in other churches' internal affairs.


Predominantly Lutheran Estonia contains a minority of 50,000 Orthodox, 30,000 of whom are Russian. The Estonian Orthodox minority represents the fruit of Orthodox missionary work during tsarist rule. In 1923 after Estonia gained its independence from Russia, an autonomous Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church emerged which, against the wishes of Russian members, placed itself under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. After Soviet occupation in 1944, the Moscow Patriarchate reasserted control, though an emigre Orthodox remnant kept a separate Estonian church alive in Sweden. The Moscow Patriarchate and Soviet authorities discriminated in favor of the Russian element in Estonia's Orthodox Church, largely through the agency, ironically, of Tallin-born Patriarch Aleksi II, bishop in Estonia from 1961 until 1986. According to retired Estonian priest August Kaljukosk, in the postwar Soviet era 42 percent of the republic's Estonian-speaking, but only 22 percent of its Russian-speaking, Orthodox parishes were closed. Of 100 ordinations, 71 were Russian-speaking priests. Anti-Estonian discrimination actually intensified in the last half of the Soviet occupation, the period in which Aleksi was in control. Today in Estonia only 17 Orthodox priests are capable of conducting services in Estonian.

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, Estonian Orthodox activists worked to wrest control of the church from the Moscow Patriarchate. On 20 January 1996, at their request, and with Estonian government approval, Bartolemaos, in what some critics regard as presumption, unilaterally reasserted direct jurisdiction over Orthodox in Estonia, installing Archbishop Johannes of Finland as head of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (EAOC). Patriarch Aleksi, backed by the highest Russian civil authorities, retaliated by suspending formal ties with Constantinople.

In reality the dispute concerned property far more than canons. The Estonian government stipulated that institutions had to register to reclaim property. It registered the EAOC but placed obstacles to recognition in the path of the pro-Moscow Orthodox Church under Archbishop Kornily of Tallin. Although 54 of the 84 Orthodox congregations in Estonia expressed support for Constantinople, two-thirds of the members favored Moscow. Ultimately, the EAOC, to stave off more serious schism, assured Russian parishes they would not be evicted. On 16 May 1996 Patriarchs Bartolemaos and Aleksi agreed to restore relations, permitting each parish to choose between Constantinople or Moscow. A major concern of the Russian Orthodox Church throughout appears to have been its fear that a successful Estonian departure might create a precedent for other separatist claims.


Fears of a Moscow takeover of parishes in Abkhazia, which has a substantial Russian community, were averted by frank discussions during Aleksi's visit in the spring of 1996. Again, ecclesiastical concerns paralleled the political as Abkhazian separatists broke from Georgian control with Russian military assistance.


Most of Moldova, under Ottoman control, and later, incorporated into Romania as the province of Bessarabia, came under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch until it was annexed by Russia in 1813. Due to the Russian Revolution (1917) and Civil War (1918-21) Romania regained control of Bessarabia, and Romanian Orthodoxy formally reestablished its jurisdiction over the region in 1924. The Soviet reannexation of Bessarabia following Red Army occupation in 1944 meant another shift of Moldovan Orthodox back to the fold of the Moscow Patriarchate. Despite Moldova's secession from the Soviet Union in 1991, pro-Moscow forces have opposed reunification with Romania. To forestall a reassertion of Romanian Orthodox jurisdiction, the Moscow Patriarchate granted the church its autonomy in 1992. Nevertheless, 48 parishes, 25 priests, and one-third of Orthodox faithful consider themselves members of a reconstituted Metropolitanate of Bessarabia under the protection of Bucharest Patriarch Teoctist. The Romanian Orthodox Church anticipates Moldova's eventual ecclesiastical, as well as linguistic, cultural, and orthographic, reintegration into Romania. Romanian Orthodoxy currently educates 80 Moldovan students at its Iasi Seminary.

For its part, the predominately Communist government of Moldova denounces the Bessarabian Metropolitanate and discriminates against it. In 1995 a Moldovan monk, Anastasie Petru, died under suspicious circumstances after receiving threats because of his affiliation with the pro-Bucharest Metropolitanate. Moldovan President Mircea Snegur, however, tacitly recognizes the Metropolitanate, and fruitful meetings between the Moscow and Bucharest Patriarchates took place in the fall of 1996 and in February 1997. Austria will be the site of additional discussions in June 1997.


Many Orthodox in Belarus are uneasy about the subordination of their church to the Moscow Patriarchate. They dislike Russified leadership under Metropolitan Filaret of Minsk and sermons in Russian. In the spring of 1996, in line with recent mass prodemocracy demonstrations against the trend toward reintegration of Belarus into Russia, 15 of 788 Orthodox parishes in Belarus transferred their allegiance from the Moscow Patriarchate to the U.S.-based Belarusian Autocephalous Church.


Macedonians and Montenegrins, traditionally part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, are increasingly asserting their distinct identities against Serbian hegemony. The Macedonian Orthodox Church unilaterally declared its autocephaly in 1967, an uncanonical procedure in Orthodox tradition. Nevertheless, it had the support of Yugoslavia's Communist leader, Josef Tito, who wished to buttress Macedonian cultural consciousness against Greek and Bulgarian ethnic and territorial claims to Macedonia. This church has never been recognized by other Orthodox churches. Eventually, in July 1995, the Serbian Orthodox Church declared the Macedonian Orthodox Church schismatic, though in 1996 Serbia did concede political recognition to Macedonia. Because the Macedonian government and church enjoy cordial relations with the Vatican, Serbian Orthodox accuse Macedonian Orthodox of having sold out to Catholicism. The Serbian Orthodox Church also refuses recognition of the tiny Montenegrin Orthodox Church, created in 1993.


The schism which has rent the Bulgarian Orthodox Church since 1992 resulted from an ill-advised state intervention to replace Patriarch Maksim and the Holy Synod by a Provisional Synod under Metropolitan Pimen of Nevrokop. The Union of Free Democrats (UDF) government argued that Maksim's 1971 election under the Communists was invalid. A nucleus of priests, impatient with Maksim's delays in convening a Sobor (Council) to address church reform, supported the Provisional Synod. In addition, complicating matters, the UDF had the support of Orthodox bishops who had been just as compromised by Communism as Maksim. The 90-year-old Pimen, widely regarded as unprincipled, originally had been appointed a metropolitan in 1952 as a protégé of the ruthless Interior Minister Alexander Yugov, against the wishes of the Holy Synod.

The majority of believers deplore the uncanonical nature of the schism and support Maksim, who is recognized as legitimate by other patriarchates. However, the undignified scuffles over key church properties, including the Synod headquarters and the candle factory which still provides most of the church's income, discredited both sides. The Bulgarian Socialist Party (Communist) government, which succeeded the UDF at the end of 1992, reinstated Maksim and now poses as a defender of Orthodoxy. Most of the bishops have repented and have been reinstated by Maksim. However, in July 1996 Pimen convened a Sobor which elected him patriarch. He is acknowledged only by the dubious Patriarch Filaret and his self-constituted Ukrainian Orthodox Kyiv Patriarchate. Maksim has threatened to anathematize Pimen, irrevocably severing him from the church, if he does not retract his claim. The Holy Synod has blacklisted churches supporting Pimen and many lay people, terrified of excommunication, have stopped attending them. Meanwhile, January 1997 mass protests of disastrous Socialist economic policies included participation by supporters of both patriarchs, though Pimen's rebel Synod proved more outspoken.

One former Orthodox theology professor claims that until 1990 half of Sofia Theological Academy students were working for the security services. He argues that the schism was initiated and is being kept going by people whose aim is to destabilize the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and to provoke conflict between it and the UDF. This makes it possible to forget the Communist Party's crimes against Orthodoxy and to create a false impression that those Orthodox who support Maksim oppose democracy. The Communists seem to be the main beneficiaries. Maksim has consolidated relationships with supportive neighboring Orthodox churches, in particular, the Greek, Serbian, and Russian Orthodox. At the same time, an anti-Catholic, anti-Western, anti-Muslim, and anti-ecumenical contagion has rapidly spread within the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.

Four of the fourteen present metropolitans are generally believed to be Communist agents and a significant proportion of Orthodox theological lecturers are not believers.


The Lord's Army - Oastea Domnului

The Lord's Army arose in Transylvania as a lay-centered Romanian Orthodox revival movement which stressed Bible study, evangelical sermons, and active mission. Its founder, Fr. Iosif Trifa, was accused of Protestant tendencies and defrocked in 1935. Some members left and amalgamated with the Brethren. Nevertheless, most of its half million members remained faithful to their Orthodox mother church which, however, was not prepared to defend the Lord's Army against attempted destruction by the Communists. It survived underground under leaders like the deeply-respected late Traian Dors, providing an invaluable reservoir of committed Christians who were not afraid to use every opportunity to witness. Communists did their utmost to foment divisions within the leadership.

With the coming of freedom, rehabilitation of the Army was an urgent necessity. In 1991 the Holy Synod approved its statutes, stated its conviction that it would "regain its place for good in the bosom of the church after these long and difficult years of atheist dictatorships." It rehabilitated Trifa, recognizing that his faults had been disciplinary, not doctrinal, and that he was a "model of service and sacrifice to God and neighbor." Tensions still exist within the Army, and some sectors of the Orthodox church still regard it as sectarian. Some members have joined the Eastern Rite Catholic Church, now rehabilitated after forced absorption into the Orthodox Church under Communism.

Editor's note: In the next issue of the East-West Church & Ministry Report, Janice Broun will examine Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic divisions in Russia and Ukraine.

Janice Broun is a freelance journalist from Alness, Scotland.

Janice Broun, "Divisions in Eastern Orthodoxy Today," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 5 (Spring 1997), 1-3

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