Russian delegates walk out of talks with Vatican over dispute with another Orthodox church

Vatican City - Delegates from the Russian Orthodox Church walked out of theological talks with the Vatican over a territorial dispute with another Orthodox church, officials said Thursday.

The Russian Orthodox representatives were incensed that the Patriarchate of Constantinople, headquarters of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians, had invited members of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church to attend the meeting in Ravenna, Italy.

The Russian church does not recognize the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church — the rival of its own branch in the former Soviet republic — as an autonomous canonical structure. It claims the Estonian church was created by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1996 on the territory of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Orthodox churches are largely autonomous, but Bartholomew is considered "first among equals" of the world's Orthodox patriarchs and directly controls several churches.

A statement from the Russian church said its representative to the Ravenna meeting, Bishop Ilarion, left after he had tried to find a solution in talks with Metropolitan John Zizioulas of the Ecumenical Constantinople Patriarchate, but that "no understanding was reached."

"The Moscow Patriarchate places great importance in the development of theological dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church," the statement said.

"But at the same time ... the joint participation by delegates of the Moscow Patriarchate and the so-called Estonian Apostolic Church in an official session would mean the implicit recognition by the Moscow Patriarchate of the canonical (nature) of this church structure."

The walkout reflected the politically charged post-Soviet struggle over the Orthodox Christian community in Estonia that pits the Moscow-based church and its leader, Patriarch Alexy II, against Bartholomew.

Rival churches in the small, mostly Lutheran Baltic Sea nation are supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, which claims the whole of the former Soviet Union as its territory and has the largest flock in the Orthodox Christian word, and Bartholomew's Ecumenical Patriarchate.

The dispute has its roots in the 20th Century history of Estonia, occupied during World War II by the Nazis and then the Soviet Union, which controlled it for decades afterward, leaving deep animosity. The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church was registered in 1993, two years after the country regained independence from Moscow, and became the legal successor of the pre-World War II Estonian Orthodox Church.

The dispute flared in 1996, when the Ecumenical Patriarchate resumed full canonical supervision of the Estonian church, prompting Alexy to announce that his church had severed communion with Bartholomew's. The Russian Orthodox Church restored communion months later after a compromise agreement, but tension persists.

The meeting in Ravenna, scheduled from Oct. 8-15, was the second since the Catholic-Orthodox theological dialogue resumed in 2006 after breaking off for six years.

Orthodox and Catholic churches have been split since 1054 in large part because of disagreements over the power of the pope. Orthodox churches also accuse the Vatican of seeking converts on traditionally Orthodox territories, particularly in Eastern Europe — charges that Rome denies.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said the Vatican hoped the dispute between the Orthodox churches would be resolved quickly.

He said the Vatican hoped that "such inter-Orthodox difficulties won't prejudice the official dialogue between Orthodoxy and the Catholic Church."