Strengthening the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Baltic States – a guarantee of the solidity of an independent European outpost?

Cross on an Orthodox church
Cross on an Orthodox church, Augustas Didžgalvis

In the religious space of the Baltic States, things are finally beginning to change in what used to be known as “occupation”. Historical justice and truth are ceasing to be beaten with Moscow’s dirty whips. They are beginning to be cleansed of the distortions that the Moscow Patriarchate has brought while it was on the territory of the Republic of Lithuania.

On 17 February 2023, a significant event took place (although not everyone noticed it) – Patriarch Bartholomew, thanks to his wisdom and the goodwill of the Lithuanian government, restored the ranks of the Lithuanian priests, which had been illegally taken away by the occupying Patriarchate of Moscow, and accepted them into his clergy.

As far as we now know, these clergy will form the basis of the new Exarchate of Lithuania, which will be created in the next month by Constantinople. The return of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to its canonical territory in Lithuania offers tens of thousands of Orthodox Ukrainians an opportunity for prayer and spiritual care. It is important to note that all these people have found themselves outside Ukraine thanks to Putin and the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church who support him. But, of course, according to their beliefs, the Ukrainian refugees do not want to and cannot visit the churches on the territory of Lithuania, which are still under the control of the Moscow priests.

Therefore, the establishment of the Exarchate of Constantinople in Lithuania solves several problems at once. First of all, it is an important step towards improving the religious situation and strengthening the country’s security. Secondly, it weakens Russia’s influence in the Baltic States in general. Thirdly, it is very important that, in another respect, it will unite Ukraine and the Republic of Lithuania on the international stage.

Ukraine is immensely grateful to its Lithuanian friends for their invaluable military assistance. It is looking forward to uniting with Lithuania as one big family under the care of the Mother Church of Constantinople. It is no secret that the Moscow Patriarchate’s time in Ukraine is ending. The country is going through a challenging but very important phase – cleansing itself from the yoke of Moscow. A yoke that Ukrainian patriots began to move in 2013 in the legendary Independence Square.

Now, on Ukrainian soil, the Moscow Patriarchate is losing its influence on society and will soon be banned. This is a truly historical moment that Ukrainian patriots have been waiting for almost six years when it became clear that there had to be an autocephalous Ukrainian Church. In addition, the priests in Moscow have been doing everything possible to have their ideology banned. The leadership of the UOB-MP in the wake of Putin’s invasion is beneath all criticism. No matter how hard they try to deny it, all adequate people can see the Russian sentiments cherished by the MPs, and the hierarchs take their orders directly from the Moscow Patriarchate.

Unfortunately, the MPs have similar sentiments in Lithuania, although they are not the same. Therefore, the churches of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Lithuania will become a healthy alternative for the faithful, a strong “barrier” to the spread of the “Russian world”; they will cut off the tentacles of the Russian hydra, which wants to penetrate inside and feed the hearts and souls of the Lithuanian, and of the Orthodox of Europe in general.

As has already been pointed out, in this situation, the Ukrainians could become the backbone of the Constantinople Patriarchate’s society in Lithuania. It is they who will undoubtedly visit, together with the Lithuanian Orthodox, the churches handed over to Phanar in Lithuania. However, there is one “but”. It is reported that Constantinople will be given the St. The Church of St Nicholas, located in the Lukiškės prison complex, will be given to Constantinople. In other words, Ukrainians will be offered to worship in a Soviet prison that was once built for Lithuanians by the Russians. Historically speaking, this is somewhat ironic. It is a deliberate move by the Lithuanian authorities, but let us agree that the location of the main church of Constantinople in Lithuania is really unfortunate.


Obviously, the Ukrainian people, as one of the contributors to the development and strengthening of the Mother Church in Lithuania, should, in any case, be grateful to the Lithuanian authorities for the buildings they have provided. Moreover, Metropolitan Emmanuel of Chalcedon liked the church. However, the descendants of the victims of the Tsarist and Soviet regimes will pray there. And as the main temple, this religious building could be more suitable. As one of several, given its commemorative significance, yes. But it is certainly not the main one. After all, the Orthodox faith is not only about mourning for innocent victims.

Also, it is unclear how Orthodox services will fit in with modern secular concerts and bar activities in the former prison. The nearby jazz dance school, which organises events in the complex, also creates a kind of “competition” and dissonant context for the evening religious services: imagine the collision of such different streams of people coming to dance and those coming to pray. Most likely, Vilnius officials are not prepared to break contracts with specific private organisations and find a place for them elsewhere. Too expensive. Not to mention the possible increase in discontent among businesses. And in this respect, the question arises – wouldn’t it be easier to find out the opinion of the Lithuanian Orthodox? In Ukraine, for example, the practice of opinion polls has proved quite promising.

I would also like to ask – perhaps the Lithuanian authorities should reconsider the transfer (I should say “initially”) of at least one MP church to the Ukrainian faithful? This would be the right thing to do in the eyes of the Lithuanians and Ukrainians who have suffered so much at the hands of the Russians and who have had to leave, unwillingly, their country, which has become the mainstay of the struggle for European freedom. In this case, this could be resolved with the main church of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew does not seem to be afraid of confronting the head of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Primate of the Mother Church has already made clear his position and vision with regard to world Orthodoxy by pushing the Muscovites in Ukraine. It needs to be clarified what is stopping Phanar from doing the same in Lithuania. It is difficult to understand the objective factors stopping the country’s authorities from reviewing the real estate transfer to religious organisations. It is clear that the presence of MPs in the country, especially in state structures, is completely out of the country’s interests.

However, the loss of the administrative buildings that the government proposes to transfer to the Exarchate also indicates that something is hindering the willingness of the Lithuanian government to develop cooperation with the Ecumenical Patriarchate or to perceive the importance of an initiative in this direction. The transfer of buildings in less than perfect condition to the balance sheet of the nascent Exarchate (in particular Antakalnio Street 10) is a rather controversial decision, and its logic is questionable.

Antakalnio street 10 (recently repainted façade, but part of the building has not been cleaned)
4A Rožių Avenue (gated courtyard, 300 m radius of the US and Ukrainian embassies, the most decent building – although, in fact, it’s an old building too, built in 1908 and vandalised)

Undoubtedly, the Lithuanian Orthodox will be happy with any choice, but if mistakes can be avoided when reforming the religious sphere, why make them? And the decision to transfer the MP’s real estate is an excellent one, but we need to find the political will. The Moscow priests will have to be dealt with one way or another, and, as the Ukrainian experience shows, it is better to do it as early as possible.

Also, perhaps more attention should be paid in future to those MP clergy whom His Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew has received under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Yes, the fact that they have been illegally removed shows their disloyalty to the Putin regime, but unfortunately, this cannot definitively guarantee loyalty to the ideas that brought Constantinople back to the Baltic land.

In a sense, it would be more logical, if not unreasonable, to give pastors from the local Ukrainian church, the OUB, the opportunity to interact with the Ukrainian refugees. Since the outbreak of the war, the Ukrainian public has had a very painful reception of MP representatives, even former ones, and the presence of representatives of this organisation during the divine service can cause very controversial emotions. Allowing OUB priests to serve at least temporarily in Lithuania would support Ukrainians who have already lost so much and would strengthen not only interstate but also inter-Orthodox ties (especially if we remember that Lithuania and Ukraine used to be the same Metropolitanate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate).

It is to be hoped that a hospitable Lithuania, together with the Patriarch of the Mother Church, will hear the hopes of the Ukrainians and allow for adjustments in the list of churches to be offered and for changes in the personnel of the future Lithuanian Exarchate, with the addition of OUB pastors. Moreover, this issue was raised by Archbishop Eustratios Zorya and Metropolitan Epiphanios in a meeting with Lithuanian officials in 2022 and by the Lithuanian Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs on 16 February this year. Therefore, the OUB’s desire and willingness to implement such a scenario is familiar to them.

In any case, it must not be forgotten that strengthening the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Baltic States is another brick in the wall against Asian Russia and that the full religious and ideological independence of Europe will result. It is very important to anchor this brick firmly to the previous brick of Ukraine’s religious independence. And the best cement for this will be only the same joint ministry of the clergy of Phanar and Kyiv in the old lands of the Litvins.

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