The Russian Orthodox Church on Thursday formally ended an 80-year global schism triggered when overseas exiles refused to accept the church’s subservience to the Soviet state.
In a ceremony at Christ the Savior Cathedral, which was rebuilt in the 1990s after it had been torn down decades earlier by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, leaders of the domestic and overseas Russian Orthodox hierarchies signed an act of “canonical communion.”
The document provides for the full restoration of religious unity under the Moscow patriarchate while maintaining autonomy for the church abroad in organizational and economic matters.
“A historic event has taken place, which has been awaited for many, many years,” Patriarch Alexei II said during the religious service marking reunification.
“Confrontations in society inherited at the time of the revolution and civil war are being overcome. The church is being strengthened. Our fatherland is being revived,” he said.
The Russian Orthodox Church was torn by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a subsequent civil war pitting Vladimir I. Lenin’s Red Army against a monarchist White Army, and the flight of refugees abroad. But the split was not formalized until 1927, when the leader of the church in the Soviet Union, Metropolitan Sergiy, declared loyalty to the communist government.
Sergiy’s defenders later said he was trying to save the church from destruction.
At Thursday’s ceremony, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia was represented by its head, Metropolitan Laurus, who is based in New York. He expressed hope that the new “bonds of brotherhood” would help the church in its “joint service for God and the Russian people at home and abroad.”
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who in recent years played a key role in facilitating the reunification, also spoke at the ceremony.
“The split in the church was caused by an extremely deep political split within Russian society itself,” said Putin, a former KGB agent who since becoming president in 2000 has frequently attended Orthodox services.
“We have realized that national revival and development in Russia are impossible without reliance on the historical and spiritual experience of our people,” Putin added. “We understand well, and value, the power of pastoral words which unite the people of Russia. That is why restoring the unity of the church serves our common goals.”
Reunification has been controversial within the church abroad, with opponents arguing that the hierarchy in Moscow still has not properly addressed the issue of its infiltration by the KGB during the Soviet period.
Konstantin Preobrazhensky, a former KGB officer turned Kremlin critic who now lives in the U.S., said Thursday in a telephone interview from Washington that he believed the church outside Russia would lose its independence and that eventually priests with loyalties to the Russian government would be sent to work in the United States.
An outspoken church activist, Preobrazhensky said that by agreeing to reunification, Laurus was inviting a new split, this time within his own flock. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia has more than 400 parishes worldwide, with an estimated membership of more than 400,000.
Advocates of reunification, however, can point to a dramatic revival of the Russian Orthodox Church under Alexei’s leadership, including the restoration or construction of thousands of churches across the country.
For ordinary Russians who came to Thursday’s service, the event was a milestone that bode well for their country.
“The reunification of our church will be a symbol that will help to reunite the entire Russian people, and the reunited Russians will become an even stronger and greater nation,” Yevgeny Alexeyev, 33, a nuclear physicist, said before entering the cathedral.
Darya Filipenko, 23, a musician, said she considered the ceremony “an immensely important historic event.”
“There is no Red or White Russia anymore, no Russian and foreign church,” she said. “We managed to prove to the world that we can recover and fortify our moral foundation, which for many years appeared to be irreparably damaged if not lost altogether.
“This act of reunification will become one of the most important landmarks in the history of Russia and in the history of the Russian Orthodox Church,” she said. “The civil war is finally over.”
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.