Ecumenical Orthodox Patriarch plans Lithuanian branch, in blow to Moscow


VILNIUS, March 21 (Reuters) - The spiritual head of Orthodox Christians worldwide said on Tuesday he would work with Lithuanian authorities to establish a new branch in the Baltic nation to ensure that believers are no longer under the sole supervision of Moscow.

In 2019, Patriarch Bartholomew infuriated Moscow by recognizing the newly established Orthodox Church of Ukraine as Ukraine's official branch. Previously the Ukrainian Church had fallen under the authority of the Moscow patriarchate.

"Today a new perspective opens before us along with the possibility to work together for the establishment of (a branch) of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (of Constantinople) in Lithuania," Bartholomew told reporters in Vilnius after meeting Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte.

"The Ecumenical Patriarchy sacrificially offers itself to the service of the Orthodox faithful in Lithuania... This is an exceptional honour for us", he added.

The Russian Orthodox Church had no immediate comment.

Bartholomew is based in Istanbul, still known among Orthodox Christians by its ancient Greek name of Constantinople.

Simonyte said some of her country's Orthodox believers, including Ukrainian and Belarusian refugees, objected to the current status of the Church there as a unit of the Russian Orthodox Church.

"It is natural and human that, as Russia began its full-scale aggression in Ukraine with the open and active support of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill, some Lithuanian Orthodox can no longer in good conscience remain part of the Moscow Patriarchy," said Simonyte.

Kirill has been a staunch supporter of what Moscow calls a "special military operation" in Ukraine.

The Constantinople Patriarchate is considered "first among equals" in the Orthodox world, but the Russian Church has the largest number of Orthodox believers, some 100 million out of 260 million worldwide.

Orthodoxy in Lithuania dates back to the 13th century, Bartholomew said, when it fell under the ultimate supervision of Constantinople, then capital of the Byzantine Empire.

As of 2021 there were about 100,000 Orthodox believers in mainly Roman Catholic Lithuania, in a total population of 2.7 million.

Reporting by Andrius Sytas, additional reporting by Filipp Lebedev, editing by Terje Solsvik and Gareth Jones

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Andrius covers politics and general news in the Baltics - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, the three key states along the NATO's eastern flank, the staunchest supporters of Ukraine and the most vocal critics of Russia in NATO and the European Union. He wrote stories on everything from China pressuring German companies to leave Taiwan-supporting Lithuania to Iraqi migrants hiding in the forest at the Belarus border to a farmer burning grain for heat during the energy crisis. Contact: +37068274006.