Orthodox patriarchs pray for end to schism

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PHIL REEVES

Moscow

After days of slugging it out beard-to-beard, the two heavyweight patriarchs of Eastern Orthodoxy appear to be simmering down after one of the church's most serious disputes since the Middle Ages. There is even talk of a reconciliation.

More than a week after news of the furore first began to reverberate around the onion domes of Europe and Russia, the Patriarch of Moscow, Alexy II, yesterday indicated that negotiations were under way to avert an irreversible schism.

At issue is a decision by his counterpart, Bartholomew I, Patriarch of Constantinople, to accept into the fold the Estonian church, which recently broke free from Moscow after a period of subordination which began when Stalin annexed the Baltic republic in 1940.

The Patriarchate of Moscow promptly suspended relations with Constantinople - historically the mother church - and launched a distinctly unclerical verbal assault, accusing it of "shattering age-old Orthodox unity" by supporting Estonia's "nationalist dissenters". Constantinople replied that Moscow was "hurling threats".

Yesterday, Alexy II's spokesman (who glories in the title of Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad) reiterated his complaints against the rival prelate. But the spokesman also said efforts were under way towards a reconciliation.

"We realise how dangerous this situation is. We do not want a schism in Orthodoxy," he said. "We can only work and pray for the situation to change radically for the better to prevent a final break in relations." This will not be easy, given the competing aspirations of the two patriarchs for leadership of the world's 250m-300m Eastern Orthodox Christians.

The squabble arose from a split within Estonia, which, in effect, now has two Orthodox Churches. One is Estonian, the legacy of a church-in- exile whose clerics fled to Sweden when the Soviets arrived. It wants to be in the jurisdiction of Istanbul. The other is Russian-dominated, and wants to shelter beneath the protective wing of Moscow.

This division has been deepened by a strong suspicion among Estonian believers that their Russian counterparts are more interested in retaining a political foothold in the country than in matters ecclesiastical. Rumours abound that the Russian wing of the church includes infiltrators from the security services - a claim that the Moscow-backed faction denies.

But Russians both in Estonia and in Moscow argue that it is yet another example of the anti-Russian discrimination that has taken root across much of the former Soviet Union.

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