VILNIUS – There's an opportunity to create a church structure in Lithuania, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople said in Vilnius on Tuesday.
"Today, a new perspective opens before us along with the possibility to work together for the establishment of an exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Lithuania," he told reporters on Tuesday after meeting with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte and signing an agreement on closer cooperation.
An exarchate is an administrative area of the Orthodox Church, made up of several adjacent dioceses on a national territorial basis.
Lithuania currently has the Archdiocese of Vilnius and Lithuania, which is subordinate to the Patriarchate of Moscow
Bartholomew I says the creation of such a structure is what both the clergy and the faithful in Lithuania want.
"We support the aspiration of both group of Lithuanian orthodox priests and believers," the patriarch said.
In his words, the possibility of practicing the faith under the Patriarchate of Constantinople restores "historical justice".
"The presence of Orthodoxy in Lithuania dates back to the XIII century," Patriarch Bartholomew I said, adding that the relationship between the Orthodox Christians in Lithuania and the Ecumenical Patriarchate was established then.
Later in the day, the patriarch is scheduled told meet with Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, visit the country's emerging community of believers, and meet with the five Orthodox priests who were reinstated last month.
The priests were defrocked Metropolitan Innokentiy of the Lithuanian Orthodox Church, who is subordinate to the Patriarchate of Moscow, last summer. It was alleged at the time that the priests had committed canonical crimes of making false reports, disobeying the ruling bishop and conspiring.
GOVERNMENT VOWS SUPPORT
For her part, the prime minister said it was "natural and human" that after Russia's attack on Ukraine and as Moscow Patriarch Kirill's support the war, it has become "no longer possible for some Lithuanian Orthodox Christians to be part of the Moscow Patriarchate's Archdiocese of Vilnius and Lithuania without a conflict with their conscience".
"It's quite understandable and historically justified that in order to practice their faith without any conflict with their conscience representatives of national communities appealed to His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to accept them into the mother Church of Constantinople," Simonyte said.
While she said she backed the appeal, she also stressed that the final decision rested with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
"This is a matter for the Church and the faithful to decide," the prime minister said.
She stressed, however, that the government "will do everything" to ensure the freedom of belief, conscience and religion, enshrined in the Constitution.
"The state and its officials cannot interfere or try to influence the canonical decisions of Churches, but when they are made, it would be hypocritical to pretend that we don't understand their importance," the prime minister underlined.