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The Patriarchate of Constantinople is finalizing the creation of its own structures for the Orthodox Church in Lithuania

Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine has caused reverberations in the world of Orthodox Christianity. While the church in Moscow has fully backed the Kremlin’s war, many priests in places such as Lithuania have found adherence to this belief an impossible task.

February 7, 2024 - Nikodem Szczygłowski - Articles and Commentary

View of the main Orthodox church of Lithuania, the Cathedral of the Theotokos in the Vilnius district of Uzupis. Photo: MNStudio / Shutterstock

Soon a so-called “exarchate” will be created in Lithuania for the Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This will act as an alternative to the existing Lithuanian Archdiocese of Vilnius, which is subordinate to the Russian Orthodox Church in Moscow.

According to the priest Gintaras Sungaila, this structure will be created on the basis of conciliar law following the arrival of the head of the new Lithuanian exarchate – the Estonian priest Justinus Kiviloo.

“With his arrival the creation of a church structure belonging to the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Lithuania will be finalized,” Sungaila confirmed in a interview with the BNS news agency.

“After completing the canonical procedure we hope to register as a religious community in accordance with the secular laws of the Lithuanian Republic,” he added.

The Exarch Kiviloo arrived in Lithuania on January 5th and celebrated his first service on the following Saturday.

Orthodox Christians are considered to be one of the nine traditional Lithuanian religious communities according to the country’s laws. This is why the recognition of the Exarchate of Constantinople will not require a motion by the Lithuanian parliament. Its registration depends on the country’s justice ministry. The result will be that there will now be two Orthodox communities in the country, one belonging to the Moscow Patriarchate and one under Constantinople.

The recognition of the exarchate by Lithuania would also allow for financial support from the state to be given to the organization, as other traditional religious communities already receive such funds. 

At this time, the Lithuanian exarchate, which is now being properly formed, has ten clerics and ten communities in different Lithuanian towns.

Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople first visited Lithuania in March 2022. During his visit, he restored five priests that had previously been affiliated with the Orthodox Archdiocese of Lithuania under the Moscow Patriarchate. He then announced that he would form another institution of his church in Lithuania.

The five priests from the exarchate were expelled by the Lithuanian Orthodox Archdiocese in 2022 for alleged “canonical violations”. However, Constantinople argued that it was rather caused by their (including Sungaila’s) stance towards the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which was in clear opposition to the views expressed by the Moscow Patriarchate.

Recognizing the Constantinople exarchate in Lithuania will inadvertently cause debate on the issue of who owns the real estate that is in the hands of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has been the only representative of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania thus far. Given this role, it has administered almost all of the country’s Orthodox churches, including those that were built before the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795 – the first time such property was seized by Moscow.

Sungaila also confirmed that those Orthodox Christians who already belong to or have declared interest in becoming a member of the Constantinople exarchate, and have nowhere to pray, will be able to rent or use prayer houses belonging to Catholic and Protestant communities. He also underlined why the exarchate will aspire to achieve the status of a traditional religious community.

“We would like to have the legal status of a traditional religious community because it is exactly here in Lithuania our religious community set up the first official structure of the Orthodox Church in the 14th century – the Metropolis of Lithuania. It was an organization of the Patriarchate of Constantinople,” he stressed.

Gintaras Sungaila found himself among the initiators of the process to form an exarchate when he was forced to leave the archdiocese subservient to the Moscow Patriarchate, together with a few other clerics, just before Easter 2022. Sungaila and two others were then released from their duties by the metropolitan “for sharing political views” (not in accordance with the official position of their superiors with regards to the Russian aggression against Ukraine). Another four resigned in a gesture of solidarity.

On September 19th 2022, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople received a delegation from Lithuania at his residence in the Istanbul district of Fener. It was led by the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mantas Adomėnas. During the meeting, the head of the patriarchate and the Lithuanian representatives discussed the situation of the Orthodox community and other issues of common interest.

Then, on March 22nd 2023, Bartholomew visited Lithuania. His visit coincided with a conference in the parliament titled “The response of churches and religious communities in the face of war and conflict”. The Patriarch took part in this alongside Emmanuel, the Metropolitan of Chalcedon. There was also a meeting between Bartholomew I and Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, as well as the signing of a document that called for closer cooperation between the Constantinople Patriarchate and the Lithuanian Republic. The guest was also received by the Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda.

The topic of the creation of an exarchate in Lithuania was discussed both with the prime minister and president.

According to Bartholomew I, the establishment of a new church structure belonging to the Patriarchate of Constantinople would meet the expectations of both the clergy and Lithuanian Orthodox Christians. The Lithuanian prime minister stated that such a plan would help not only Orthodox Lithuanians but also those Ukrainians who have sought refuge in the country following the Russian aggression, as well as Belarusians who have found a safe haven from the repressions in their home country.

Sungaila told the media that “this was a historic event” after he had celebrated his first service as a clergyman of the Constantinople Patriarchate in early March 2023. “The spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world, the first honorary patriarch of the Orthodox Church and the 270th successor to the apostle Andrew had visited Lithuania for the first time.”

Some 77 per cent of Lithuanians declare themselves to be Catholics, although in practice the society remains more secular than that of neighbouring Poland. Four per cent of the population are Orthodox (mostly ethnic Russians and Belarusians, and increasingly more Ukrainians), while six per cent say they do not affiliate with any religion at all. Orthodoxy in Lithuania is unique because it is the only country among those that achieved independence from the Russian Empire after 1918 (the others being Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Poland) that did not establish an autocephalic church. The Eparchy of Vilnius and the Lithuanian Moscow Patriarchate have been responsible for 52 parishes, over 55 churches, two monasteries and several other properties despite relatively few adherents. They are mostly located in Vilnius and the eastern regions of the country.

The Orthodox Archdiocese of Vilnius and Lithuania, currently headed by Archbishop Innocent, is part of the Moscow Patriarchate. Its position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine has naturally caused much controversy in Lithuanian society since spring 2022.

Nikodem Szczygłowski is a traveller, writer and reporter. He studied Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of Łódź and at CEMI in Prague. He is fluent in Lithuanian and Slovenian.

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