Orthodox Church cancels collective prayer due to 'political provocation'

A meeting of the Koos / Vmeste (Together) movement on October 22, 2022.
A meeting of the Koos / Vmeste (Together) movement on October 22, 2022. Source: SCANPIX / Postimees

The Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (MPEÕK) announced on Tuesday that it will be cancelling a collective prayer with the NGO "Koos Rahu Eest Eestis" ("Together for Peace in Estonia") planned for February 22, claiming it had fallen victim to a "political provocation." Members of the NGO, also known as "Koos / Vmeste," are running in the upcoming Riigikogu elections on the list of the United Left Party of Estonia (EÜVP).

On Monday, the NGO (non-governmental organization) "Koos Rahu Eest Eestis" (Koos / Vmeste) circulated a video appeal on social media, in which head of the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (MPEÕK) Metropolitan Eugene, called on people to come to Toompea in Tallinn on February 22, to take part in a collective prayer. However, in a statement released on Tuesday, the MPEÕK announced it would be cancelling the prayer, claiming it had been the victim of a "deliberate political provocation."

According to the Estonian Ministry of the Interior, Koos / Vmeste, which takes its name from the Estonian and Russian words meaning "together," has repeatedly made pro-Kremlin statements. Members of the movement are running for the upcoming Riigikogu elections on the list of the United Left Party of Estonia (EÜVP).

"It is with great regret that we have to announce that our church has been the victim of political provocation. We thought that we had been approached by active citizens, who wanted to send a message, to call to pray for peace, with the best of intentions," the MPEÕK said in a statement released on Tuesday.

"The church does not participate in politics and is not always in a position to judge the political actions and political consequences of some irresponsible characters," the statement said.

According to the MPEÕK, prayers for a swift end to the bloodshed and the restoration of peace "in the much-afflicted lands of Ukraine" will be offered during services in all its congregations.

The appeal, which was made in Russian by Aivo Peterson, one of the leaders of the Koos/Vmeste movement, gave the impression that the action would be taking place outside the church, as food and hot drinks were said to be available for participants. It was also promised, that everyone would be given the opportunity to express their opinion on stage about "living in peace with all the refugees who have come to Estonia from Ukraine". They also promised to provide buses from Ida-Viru-County at the organizers' expense, to transport people who wished to participate to and from Tallinn.

"On the eve of a tragic date - one year after the beginning of the war - we want to call on believers to strengthen their prayers. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Koos / Vmeste movement did not coordinate their actions with us. We were not aware of their plans to organize an action in front of the parliament and have nothing to do with that. It is likely that this was a deliberate political provocation," said the MPEÕK.

Metropolitan Eugene of the Estonian Orthodox Chrch of the Moscow Patriarchate Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

In the same statement, it was announced, that the collective prayer planned for February 22 in Tallinn's Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, will now be cancelled. The church building will also remain closed that morning to avoid any potential provocations from taking place.

"Finally, we wish to stress that the doors of our places of worship will always remain open to believers and those who seek God. We welcome every person who comes to us as a brother or sister in Christ, irrespective of nationality or political views. However, we must reiterate, that our church's position on political involvement remains unchanged. The church is outside politics and therefore we do not participate in any political or pre-election activities," the MPEÕK's statement continued.

On Tuesday, Undersecretary for Population and Civil Society at the Ministry of the Interior Raivo Küüt issued an invitation to Metropolitan Eugene to appear at the ministry as a matter of urgency in order to explain his plan to participate in the political action. 

Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) said, that he is categorically opposed to interference in secular politics by any church, religious community or religious leader, describing such actions as fundamentally amoral.

The Ministry of the Interior last communicated with Metropolitan Eugene in October, when the leader of the MPEÕK was asked to clarify his position regarding Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine.

Läänemets: We are getting our message across

Minister of the Interior Lauri Läänemets (SDE) told ERR, that he was satisfied with the MPEÕK's decision to cancel the prayer. However, the minister also admitted that if it had taken place, it could have provided the basis for Metropolitan Eugene's expulsion from Estonia.

"Obviously, the lesson that can be taken from this is, that the message has got through, the church has drawn its conclusions," Läänemets said.

"This entire event will not happen and the church will be closed that day, that is the most important thing. We wanted there to be no interference in politics, no activities before the anniversary of the Republic of Estonia (February 24), which could cause conflicts here and divide the society, and for the church as an institution not to participate in the campaign for the elections to the Riigikogu - that is what we wanted," the minister added.

According to Läänemets, however, the invitation to Metropolitan Eugene, which was extended  by the ministry on Tuesday, remains on the table, and a meeting between him and undersecretary Raivo Küüt definitely will take place.

Asked whether the potential expulsion of Metropolitan Eugene, who is a Russian citizen, from Estonia, was off the agenda, the interior minister replied that the previously established principles regarding the church's conduct were still in force.  

"If the head of the Russian Orthodox Church crosses the red lines that we have set, where he somehow justifies the war in Ukraine or approves of the political positions of the Russian Orthodox Church, which have been expressed in Moscow or does something else, for example, such as organizing this kind of political event together with this same pro-Kremlin party, then (his potential expulsion) would have been completely on the agenda. That same principle still applies," said Läänemets.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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