Russian Patriarch Alexy II Visits Estonia

Russian Patriarch Alexy II arrived Thursday for a five-day visit, his first since a bitter dispute over the status of the faithful in the former Soviet republic threatened to split Orthodox Christians worldwide.

Estonians also see Alexy's visit as a signal from the Kremlin that it wants to improve relations. The nation of 1.4 million people has sparred with Moscow over several issues since it regained independence amid the 1991 Soviet collapse.

"It's not just any old trip. It is, I would say, a kind of step toward the normalization of Estonian-Russian relations," said Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian parliament's foreign relations committee.

Alexy is uniquely positioned to carry a goodwill message, and not only because he's viewed as an emissary of the Russian government. He was born in Estonia in 1929, went to school here and reportedly speaks fluent Estonian.

He is to meet President Arnold Ruutel and Prime Minister Juhan Parts, and scheduled to visit several monasteries and the imposing Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral, whose onion-shaped domes rise above the old town in Tallinn, the capital.

He also will hold a service in Tallinn at the graves of his parents.

A feud broke out in 1996, when ethnic-Estonian Orthodox believers switched allegiance to the Turkey-based Patriarchate in Istanbul, formerly the Byzantine capital Constantinople — headed by Patriarch Bartholomew. Ethnic Russians, a third of the Estonian population, stayed loyal to Moscow.

At the time, Alexy accused Bartholomew of a "tragic division of Orthodoxy" by "invading" the Moscow Patriarchate's territory. Bartholomew said he had merely accepted the will of Estonians, many of whom argued Alexy was too close to Russia.

Estonia's 150,000 Orthodox believers, compared with more than 150 million globally, belies the far-reaching implications of the discord, according to Larry Uzzell, an authority on Orthodox Christianity.

There are fewer than 50,000 ethnic Estonian Orthodox and more than 100,000 ethnic Russian Orthodox in Estonia. Most ethnic Estonians, the majority in the Baltic Sea nation, are Lutheran.

"Estonia is the main issue between Moscow and Constantinople," Uzzell said. "No other issue had ever come close to causing relations to boil over."

Tempers have since eased, especially after the two branches of the Orthodox church in Estonia last year took steps to resolve complex, historically based disagreements over property rights to scores of churches and hundreds of acres of land.

There's still some lingering bitterness and suspicion.

Most Estonians have enthusiastically welcomed Alexy's visit, but Estonian media have continued to raise long-standing allegations that he once had close ties with the KGB.