Friday, July 12, 2019

Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephaly Now Echoing in Latvia and Lithuania

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 11 – Ukraine’s achievement of autocephaly for its Orthodox church has sparked interest in such a move toward independence from the Moscow Patriarchate not only in Belarus ( but elsewhere as well, now including Latvia and Lithuania.

            Orthodoxy has existed on the territory of the Baltic states for more than 700 years, and the status of the church and the political situation of each has always interacted. (For the complicated history of that interrelationship in Estonia which now has two Orthodox hierarchies, see  

            Now, inspired by what has taken place in Ukraine, officials and possibly some Orthodox parishioners and even hierarchs in Latvia and Lithuania are talking about separating their respective churches from the Moscow Patriarchate and transferring their allegiance to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople as the Ukrainians have done.

            The situation in the two countries with respect to the subordination of the Orthodox church is different. The Latvian Orthodox Church is a self-administrating church with broad autonomy but it recognizes itself as being on the canonical territory of the Moscow church and Moscow appoints its hierarchs.

            The Orthodox church in Lithuania, in contrast, is not autonomous from the Russian church but rather a bishopric like any other within the Russian Orthodox Church with its finances, personnel and practices determined and controlled by Moscow alone, although many of its leaders have been strikingly pro-Lithuanian.

              Lenta journalist Denis Kishinevsky discusses the situation in both and the state of play between those who seek autocephaly to enhance national unity, to provide better service to Ukrainian Orthodox on their territories, or to boost the power of these churches within Latvia and Lithuania  and those who oppose any change (

            As one would expect, the situations are different and extremely complicated.

            In Latvia last month, the parliament unanimously approved amendments to the country’s law on the Orthodox Church that now require that all archbishops, bishops and candidates for those positions be citizens of Latvia and have lived in Latvia for no less the ten years preceding such assignments. 

Many ethnic Russians in Latvia, who form the overwhelming majority of the 16 percent of the Latvian population which identifies as Orthodox, are furious.  They see this as an unconstitutional attack on their religious freedom and a violation of traditional understandings.  As one put it, Riga must recognize that Latvia is part of “the canonical territory of the ROC.”

Many from among this community see this parliamentary move as intended to separate them from Moscow and thus reinforce Latvian independence.  But others think more many be involved. Janis Jurkans, former Latvian foreign minister, notes that Latvian officials have raided the offices of the Roman Catholic Church in Latvia.

That never happened even in Communist times, he says, and thus the moves against the Orthodox church appear to be moves against all religions and any independent civil society in Latvia. Other Latvians, however, see what is going on is simply the levelling of the status of the Orthodox and Catholics in their country.

But Nikita Andreyev, a specialist on religion at the University of Latvia, offers yet another interpretation of what is going on. He says that Riga “in fact doesn’t want to allow a Ukrainian scenario” to occur in Latvia and by its actions is strengthening the position of the Russian Orthodox Church.

He reminds that “on the territory of the republic, besides the official Latvian Orthodox Church, there exists a second Latvian Orthodox Church which is independent of the Moscow Patriarchate and formally subordinate to Constantinople.  Its hierarchs aspire to control the parishes now under the jurisdiction of the LOC.”

By taking the steps it has, Andreyev continues, the Latvian parliament has strengthened the position of the Moscow church lest “’the flames of a split’ jump from Ukraine to the Baltic.” Many hierarchs in the LOC are thus happy with this situation because it gives them greater power vis-à-vis Moscow and vis-à-vis those it views as splitters within the Orthodox community.

Andreyev’s interpretation may explain the reaction among Orthodox to the Latvian government’s moves. The Moscow Patriarchate has denounced the Latvian action in the strongest terms (, but the hierarchs of the LOC in Latvia have remained silent, reflecting divisions within the church on how to deal with this situation.

Meanwhile, in Lithuania, the situation is evolving as well. Since the restoration of independence in 1991, Vilnius has not interfered in the internal affairs of the Orthodox eparchate, choosing instead to return to the church the property it had before 1940 and to allow the church to operate without restrictions.

The leadership of the eparchate in turn has been both loyal to Lithuania and sharply critical of Russia. Metropolitan Chrysostos in fact condemned the Soviet use of force against Lithuanians in January 1991.  And the small Orthodox community, some 140,000 people or five percent of the country’s population, has had few problems.

But after Ukraine achieved autocephaly, many commentators in Lithuania began to suggest that their country should seek the same for its Orthodox, although up to now, Kishinevsky says, Lithuanian officials and politicians have not followed their lead. (See

Most Lithuanian advocates of autocephaly for the Lithuanian Orthodox do so by underscoring their concern for local Ukrainians. Approximately 20,000 live in Lithuania on a permanent basis, and another 18,000 on temporary work permits. These form a significant part of the Orthodox faithful in that Baltic republic.

Orthodox Ukrainians in Lithuania, now that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is autocephalous, should have the opportunity to worship in churches subordinate not to Moscow but to Constantinople, autocephaly advocates say (

Whether their arguments will gain political traction remains very much an open question.

No comments:

Post a Comment