Lithuanian authorities and the Ecumenical Patriarch: another example of a joint response to the war in Ukraine

Priests Vladimir Selyavko, Vitalius Motskus, Vitalis Dauparas, Gintaras Sungaila and Georgy Ananyev. Photo @ Evelina Paulavičienė
Priests Vladimir Selyavko, Vitalius Motskus, Vitalis Dauparas, Gintaras Sungaila and Georgy Ananyev. Photo @ Evelina Paulavičienė

It was not so long ago, just on February 17th, that the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate announced the reinstatement and acceptance of former clerics of the Lithuanian Orthodox Archdiocese of the Moscow Patriarchate. However, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople is already expected to visit our country this month to sign an agreement on cooperation between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Lithuania. In this article, we’ll try to sort out what is this agreement, why events are unfolding so rapidly, and why it is so important for our country, for Ukrainians, and for Europe as a whole.

The influx of Ukrainian refugees to Europe is not only a serious social and economic challenge for Lithuania but also a significant change in our religious context, since the majority of the population of Ukraine are Orthodox Christians. In order to better understand their experience and aspirations, as well as the role they and the Orthodox Church as a whole can play for our country, it is important to be aware of the processes taking place in this church and to understand that the confrontation with Russia also has a religious dimension.

With the start of the conflict in the Donbass in 2014, the majority of the population of Ukraine did not want to pray in the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate.

In 2019, after lengthy negotiations with President Poroshenko and important canonical actions, the geopolitical significance of which was well explained in the article by Prime Minister’s adviser Galina Vaščenkaitė, Patriarch Bartholomew granted Ukraine full independence from the Russian church authorities – i.e., autocephaly. The mass transition of the communities of the Moscow Patriarchate to the new autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church began. However, predictably, the active pro-Russian minority, being stirred up by Moscow, did not want to cede the temples and caused unrest, which increased religious tensions in the country.

Having slowed in 2019 with President Zelensky entering his office, the transition of communities from the Moscow Patriarchate to the Autocephalous Church of Ukraine intensified again with the start of the full-scale war in 2022. Now Ukrainians have to take their own temples, sometimes with weapons in their hands, but in wartime conditions such a harsh measure is justified. According to some politicians and experts, the Moscow Patriarchate and its pro-Russian communities are really only tools of the Kremlin and represent a serious threat to the country’s security, and therefore they cannot be called Orthodox and should be banned as soon as possible and at any cost. Others emphasize the need to legally ban religious centers and associations having any ties with Russia from operating in Ukraine. After all, as the head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic Policy and Freedom of Conscience noted, «those who maintain this connection, who fight for it to the last, have simply chosen for themselves the path of confrontation not so much with the state, but rather with the Ukrainian society and with their believers». The relevant draft laws of the deputies and the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine have already been registered in the Verkhovna Rada.

The arrival in Lithuania of forty thousand Ukrainians fleeing the war makes Ukraine’s religious controversies relevant to us as well. The only Orthodox jurisdiction registered in Lithuania is the Orthodox Church in Lithuania of the Moscow Patriarchate. It’s mentioned in our Constitution. However, given the above, it becomes obvious that we need another Orthodox Church to meet the religious needs of Ukrainian refugees and those Orthodox Lithuanians who conscientiously refuse to go to the churches of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is ready to help us.

Negotiations with Constantinople intensified in May 2022, when our ambassador in Ankara handed Patriarch Bartholomew a letter from Lithuania’s Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė. The reason for the letter was the defrocking of seven clerics by the Moscow Patriarchate’s Metropolitan Inokentiy of Lithuania for having condemned Russia’s war against Ukraine. The Ecumenical Patriarch has the right to accept appeals from clerics of other Orthodox Churches and to overturn judgments rendered there. In a letter to Bartholomew, the Prime Minister condemned Patriarch Kirill’s position regarding the war in Ukraine, supported the affected Lithuanian clerics, and petitioned to accept them under the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Mantas Adomenas was appointed responsible for the negotiations with Constantinople. A significant role was also played by the Prime Minister’s adviser Galina Vaščenkaitė: they say, it’s largely thanks to her proactive and principled position that the negotiations did not degenerate into an empty formality with no practical result.

On September 19, Mr. Adomenas and Mrs. Vaščenkaitė visited Istanbul and met with Patriarch Bartholomew. According to exclusive information from a source in the government, the Patriarch was offered to accept into his jurisdiction the former clerics of the Moscow Patriarchate and, with their participation, to restore the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Lithuania, the so-called exarchate. In order to secure the preliminary agreements, the idea arose to conclude a concordat – a special agreement between the Government of Lithuania and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A similar cooperation document was signed in 2014 between Constantinople and catholic Hungary. Similarly, our government, in view of the importance of the above-mentioned challenges, will undertake to provide the exarchate with facilities and a budget, and its clerks with a state salary.

According to an informed source, on December 14, Metropolitan Emmanuel of Chalcedon arrived in Lithuania. The purpose of the visit of the hierarch, who is the right hand of Patriarch Bartholomew and his likely successor, was to discuss with the Prime Minister a draft concordat and to meet with the former priests of the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Prime Minister demonstrated the seriousness of her intentions: the guest was not only presented with the draft of the bilateral agreement but also shown the buildings that will be handed over to the new exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate once it is established in Lithuania.

It was difficult for the government to find a church worthy of the Ecumenical Patriarch and his status as the first hierarch of the Orthodox world. Orthodox churches in Lithuania have already been transferred to the use of the Moscow Patriarchate, and it is not yet possible to get them. But a successful way out of the situation was found: Metropolitan Emmanuel was shown the beautiful church of St. Nicholas in the former Lukiškės prison, now a cultural center and concert venue. The visitor was impressed by the location of the temple, its space, and its architecture.

For the accommodation of administrative structures, the metropolitan was offered two antique buildings at Antakalnio g. 10, near the Embassy of Great Britain, and a two-story office building of modern construction at Rožių al. 4A, formerly used by the Health Emergency Situations Centre of the Ministry of Health (Sveikatos apsaugos ministerijos Ekstremalių sveikatai situacijų centras).

The desire of our Orthodox believers to perform their religious duties according to their conscience, the needs of Ukrainians who have found refuge from the war, and, finally, the security interests of Lithuania – all this requires such urgent actions. The restored clergy will form the backbone of the new exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and all Orthodox living in our country will have a worthy European alternative to the church influence of Moscow. In turn, the Lithuanian state will bear all the necessary expenses for the furnishing of the aforementioned buildings for their new high mission.

In addition, during the upcoming visit, Lithuania will also have the honor of providing the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians with a platform to meet the Seimas and the European Parliament members, as well as religious leaders, so that they can discuss the reaction of churches and religious communities to war and conflict. Thus, Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Vilnius will also emphasize the special role of our country in supporting Ukraine and in a joint response to geopolitical and spiritual threats posed by Russia. So, hopefully, those in charge will arrange a proper reception for His All-Holiness!

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