Church of Estonia (Ecumenical Patriarchate)

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Churches in Tallinn, capital of Estonia
The Orthodox Church of Estonia
Autocephaly/Autonomy declared 1917
Autocephaly/Autonomy recognized 1923, 1996 by Constantinople
Current primate Metr. Stephanos
Headquarters Tallinn, Estonia
Primary territory Republic of Estonia
Possessions abroad
Liturgical language(s) Estonian
Musical tradition Byzantine and Estonian
Calendar Revised Julian Calendar
Population estimate 28,000[1]
Official website Church of Estonia

The Church of Estonia or Orthodox Church of Estonia (Eesti Apostlik-Õigeusu Kirik) is an autonomous Orthodox church whose primate is confirmed by the Church of Constantinople. Its official name in English is the Orthodox Church of Estonia.

The current primate of the church is His Eminence Stephanos, Metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia (elected 1999).

This autonomous church should not be confused with the church of the similar name which is an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate.


Orthodox missionaries were active among the Estonians in the southeast regions of the area, closest to Pskov, in the 10th through 12th centuries. The first mention of an Orthodox congregation in Estonia was in 1030 in Tartu. Around 600 AD on the east side of Toome Hill (Toomemägi) the Estonians erected a fortress named Tarbatu. In 1030 the Kievan prince, Jaroslav the Wise, raided Tarbatu and built his own fort in this place as well as the congregation in a cathedral dedicated to St. George the Trophy-bearer. Orthodox Christians were later expelled from the city by the Germans in 1472, who martyred their priest, Isidor, along with a number of Orthodox faithful (the group is commemorated on January 8).

Little is known about the history of the church in the area until the 17th and 18th centuries, when many Old Believers fled there from Russia to avoid the liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Estonia was a part of the Tsarist Russian Empire, having been conquered by Tsar Peter the Great. A large number of Estonians, particularly rural people, were converted to the Orthodox faith in the hope of obtaining land. Numerous Orthodox churches were built. In 1850 the Diocese of Riga (in Latvia) was established by the Church of Russia and many Estonian Orthodox believers included. In the late 19th century, a wave of Russification was introduced, supported by the Russian hierarchy but not by local Estonian clergy. The St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tallinn and the Pühtitsa Dormition Stavropegic Convent (Kuremäe) in East Estonia were also built around this time.

In 1917 the first Estonian, Platon (Paul Kulbusch), was consecrated Bishop of Riga and Vicar of Tallinn. Two years later, the Bolsheviks murdered Platon and his deacon for political reasons. 81 years later, in 2000, Bp. Platon was proclaimed a saint by the Churches of Constantinople and Russia, commemorated on January 14.

After the Estonian Republic was proclaimed in 1918, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, St. Tikhon, in 1920 recognised the Orthodox Church of Estonia (OCE) as being independent. Archbishop Aleksander Paulus was elected and installed as the head of the Estonian church. In 1923 Abp. Aleksander turned to the Patriarch of Constantinople to receive canonical recognition. The same year the OCE was canonically subordinated to the Patriarchy of Constantinople and gained extensive autonomy.

Before 1941, one fifth of the total Estonian population (who had been mostly Lutheran since the 16th century occupation of Estonia by Sweden) were Orthodox Christians under the Patriarchy of Constantinople. There were 158 parishes in Estonia and 183 clerics in the Estonian church. There was also a Chair of Orthodoxy in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Tartu. There was a monastery in Petseri, two convents in Narva and Kuremäe, a priory in Tallinn and a seminary in Petseri. The ancient monastery in Petseri (Pechory, which used to belong to the Estonian Republic, now belongs to Russia) was preserved from the mass church destructions that occurred in Soviet Russia.

In 1940, Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, whose government undertook a general programme of the dissolution of all ecclesiastical independence within its territory. From 1942 to 1944, however, autonomy under Constantinople was temporarily revived. In 1945, a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate dismissed the members of the OCE synod who had remained in Estonia and established a new organisation, the Diocesan Council. Orthodox believers in occupied Estonia were thus subordinated to being a diocese within the Russian Orthodox Church.

Just before the second Soviet occupation in 1944 and the dissolution of the Estonian synod, the primate of the church, Metropolitan Aleksander, went into exile along with 21 clergymen and about 8,000 Orthodox believers. The Orthodox Church of Estonia in Exile with its synod in Sweden continued its activity according to the canonical statutes, until the restoration of Estonian independence in 1991. Before he died in 1953, Metr. Aleksandr established his community as an exarchate under Constantinople. Most of the other bishops and clergy who remained behind were deported to Siberia. In 1958, a new synod was established in exile, and the church organized from Sweden.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, divisions within the Orthodox community in Estonia arose between those who wished to remain under Russian authority and those who wished to return to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with the dispute often taking place along ethnic lines, many Russians having immigrated to Estonia during the Soviet occupation. Lengthy negotiations between the two patriarchates failed to produce any agreement.

In 1993, the synod of the Orthodox Church of Estonia in Exile was re-registered as the legal successor of the autonomous Orthodox Church of Estonia, and on February 20, 1996, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I renewed the tomos granted to the OCE in 1923, restoring its canonical subordination to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This action brought immediate protest from Patriarch Alexei II of the Moscow Patriarchate, which regarded the Estonian church as being part of its territory, and the Patriarch of Moscow temporarily removed the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch from the diptychs.

An agreement was reached in which local congregations could choose which jurisdiction to follow. The Orthodox community in Estonia, which accounts for about 14% of the total population, remains divided, with the majority of faithful (mostly ethnic Russians) remaining under Moscow. As of a government report of November 2003, about 20,000 believers (mostly ethnic Estonians) in 60 parishes are part of the autonomous church, with 150,000 faithful in 31 parishes, along with the monastic community of Pukhitsa, paying allegiance to Moscow.

In 1999, the church gained a resident hierarch (it had been under the Archbishop of Finland as locum tenens), Metropolitan Stephanos (Charalambides), who had formerly been an auxiliary bishop under the Ecumenical Patriarchate's Metropolitan of France.

In 2013, in response to a joint invitation by the Autonomous Church of Estonia and the President of the Republic of Estonia, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew traveled to Tallinn, Estonia, on September 4, 2013, in order to preside over celebrations for the 90th anniversary since the declaration of the Estonian Church as Autonomous by the Mother Church of Constantinople.

Estonian Orthodoxy today

The Orthodox Church of Estonia today consists of 73 parishes, served by 3 bishops, 33 priests and 9 deacons, and a convent.

Autocephalous and Autonomous Churches of Orthodoxy
Autocephalous Churches
Four Ancient Patriarchates: Constantinople · Alexandria · Antioch · Jerusalem
Russia · Serbia · Romania · Bulgaria · Georgia · Cyprus · Greece · Poland · Albania · Czech Lands and Slovakia · OCA* · Ukraine*
Autonomous Churches
Sinai · Finland · Estonia* · Japan* · China* · Ukraine*
The * designates a church whose autocephaly or autonomy is not universally recognized.


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