Staunton, Feb. 19 -- Since 1991, Vilnius has not interfered in the internal affairs of the Lithuanian branch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The leadership of that 140,000-person strong denomination in turn has been both loyal to Lithuania and increasingly critical of Russia and its actions abroad.
In that, the third Baltic republic until recently has been a very different position than Estonia and Latvia with regard to the Russian church. In Estonia, two Orthodox churches have emerged with one loyal to Moscow and another to Constantinople; and in Latvia, the government has moved to restrict and possibly ultimately close the Russian church (windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/07/ukrainian-orthodox-autocephaly-now.html and windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/11/latvian-state-enters-autocephaly-fight.html).
The situation in Lithuania began to change after Ukrainian Orthodox achieved autocephaly, largely because there are almost 40,000 Ukrainians living in that Baltic country and many Lithuanians believe they should have the chance to worship in churches not subordinate to Moscow. And it has intensified since Putin launched his expanded invasion of Ukraine.
That position has continued to gain support, intensifying in particular following the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago (lrt.lt/naujienos/nuomones/3/230385/r-bogdanas-ka-dabar-darys-lietuvos-staciatikiai and alfa.lt/straipsnis/50385427/ukrainieciu-autokefalijos-aidas-lietuvoje).
Now, there appears to be a very real possibility that Lithuanian Orthodoxy will split into two parts, one, the existing eparchate, remaining subordinate to Moscow, and a new group loyal to the Universal Patriarchate in Constantinople, according to Andrey Melnikov, editor of NG-Religii (ng.ru/kartblansh/2023-02-19/3_8664_kb.html).
There are two reasons for his conclusion. On the one hand, Moscow has not responded to the eparchate’s demands for greater autonomy and self-administration, thus increasing the number of those in the Lithuanian church who want complete separation and autocephaly on the Ukrainian model.
And on the other, the eparchate has expelled five priests for what it says is insubordination but what Constantinople says is their opposition to Moscow’s war in Ukraine. The five have turned to the Universal Patriarch for protection, and Patriarch Bartholemew has restored their priestly rights and taken them under his wing.
Bartholemew’s actions violate traditional Orthodox norms, but by not addressing Vilnius’ concerns, Melnikov says, Moscow has given those in Lithuania who want autocephaly or at least a separate church an opening. Now, Constantinople may form around the five priests a second Orthodox church in Lithuania on the model of Estonia.
But that of course is only a half-way house in the minds of many and represents another step toward the peeling away from Moscow of Russian Orthodox communities outside of the Russian Federation and the reduction of the Russian church to a national denomination within the county’s borders.
The NG-Religii editor says that it is now obvious that Bartholemew has “far reaching plans, slowly but surely rearranging the pieces on the chessboard of world Orthodoxy.” And he is winning bit by bit because the Moscow Patriarchate, having lost in Ukraine, is now “afraid to more even a pawn by one square on that board.”