Tucked in a remote corner of northern Europe on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, lie the republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These nation states possess distinct cultures, languages and peoples, yet they have shared a common history and fate. Squeezed between larger and more powerful peoples — Danes and Germans to the west, Swedes to the north, Poles to the south and Russians to the east — theirs is a history of domination and subjugation. Each neighboring power has struggled to capture their hearts, minds, souls and wealth.
The Baltic tribes — Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians — were the last European peoples to embrace Christianity. At the end of the 12th century, Pope Celestine III called for a campaign of conversion. These “Northern Crusades,” conducted by military orders allied with the Catholic kings of Denmark and Sweden, succeeded in converting the Baltic peoples by the 14th century.
Christianity, however, was not unknown among them. was not unknown among them. The Slavs of Kievan Rus’, especially those in the nearby city of Novgorod, had established mission churches throughout the Baltic region since they had embraced Christianity in its Byzantine form in the tenth century. The Kievan Rus’ — whose descendants today include Belarussians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Russians and Ukrainians — maintained close trading partnerships with the various Baltic tribes, whose amber, flax, honey and timber were particularly valued. Some Baltic tribal leaders even adopted the Byzantine religion of the Rus’, erected churches and ordered their peoples to be baptized and instructed in the faith.
Estonia’s Orthodox community is divided along ethnic lines. Soon after Estonia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, a dispute developed within the church between ethnic Estonians and ethnic Slavs, mostly Russians. A minority of believers, ethnic Estonians, sought to reestablish an autonomous church under the jurisdiction of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople. The majority wished to maintain their relationship with the patriarchate of Moscow.
Eventually, the two sides agreed on a resolution that allowed individual parishes to decide which jurisdiction to follow. Consequently, there are two Orthodox churches of Estonia.
The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, which falls within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, is led by Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn and All Estonia and includes some 20,000 members in 60 parishes.
The Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, led by Metropolitan Cornelius of Tallinn and All Estonia, encompasses more than 150,000 members in 31 parishes.
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