12 January 2023

‘We are the closest church
to these Ukrainians, and we
should be the first to open
our arms to welcome them’

Father Heikki Huttunen celebrates the Liturgy in Finnish and Church Slavonic in Holy Trinity Church in Helsinki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Amber Jackson from the diocese communications team in the Diocese of Europe and Patrick Comerford from USPG are visiting Anglican chaplaincies in Hungary and Finland to see how they are supporting Ukrainian refugees with funding from the joint Ukraine appeal.

In Helsinki, Patrick Comerford spoke to Father Heikki Huttunen about the refugees arriving in Helsinki and how the Orthodox Church of Finland is responding to the crisis


There is a popular story about the origins of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. It is said that when Vladimir, Prince of Kyiv, was still a pagan at the end of the tenth century, he sent envoys out to discover what the true religion was and to advise him on which religion should become the state religion.

The envoys first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but found no joy among them ‘but mournfulness and a great smell.’ In Germany and Rome, they found the worship and liturgy was without beauty. But when the envoys from Kyiv reached Byzantium, they were so dazzled by the splendour of the liturgy in the great church of Aghia Sophia they instantly decided that Orthodoxy should be the faith of their people.

‘We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.’

The story may be part of the myths of building national identity. But it shows too how Orthodox identity shares many common traditions among the people of Russia and Ukraine, and in neighbouring Finland.

Holy Trinity Church is the oldest Orthodox church in central Helsinki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Inside Holy Trinity Church in central Helsinki, Father Heikki Huttunen celebrates the Liturgy with the same splendour and beauty that the emissaries from Kyiv, but a relaxed and warm simplicity that make the church a place of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers.

The languages he uses in the liturgy include Finnish, Church Slavonic and Russian, which reflect the diversity of his people and the recent conflicts that are redefining their identities.

Holy Trinity Church is the oldest Orthodox church in central Helsinki. In size, it is almost dwarfed by the large Lutheran cathedral next-door, with its majestic domes and steps looking down onto the harbour. Helsinki Cathedral is the city’s major landmark and Finland’s most recognisable building. It is in the heart of the area that includes Senate Square, the Presidential Palace and a collection of major academic and historical buildings.

Both the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Orthodox Church of Finland have a special position in Finnish law, and their historic churches standing side-by-side each – Helsinki Cathedral and Holy Trinity Church – were designed in the 1820s by the same architect, Carl Ludvig Engel.

Although the Orthodox Church of Finland is small in numbers – with about 58,000 members – the Orthodox presence in Finland dates back to the early 12th century, and shares its roots in those stories of the emissaries sent from Kyiv to Constantinople.

Father Heikki Huttunen in Holy Trinity Church … his church in Helsinki includes many Russian and Ukrainian refugee families (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

As Father Heikki Huttunen celebrated the Liturgy in Finnish and Church Slavonic in Holy Trinity Church this week, I noticed how he named the Patriarch of Constantinople in his prayers, but not for the Patriarch of Moscow.

After centuries of Swedish rule, Finland became the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire in 1808, and Helsinki was declared the capital in 1812. Russian civil servants, merchants and soldiers moved to Helsinki in large numbers and the czar supported their efforts to build their own church. Alexander I decreed in 1814 that 15 per cent of the salt import tax was to be used to build two churches in the city, one Lutheran and one Orthodox.

In the early period of Russian rule, the parish consisted mainly of Russians living in the Helsinki region. Over the years, however, the parish has changed and the majority of members today speak Finnish, although 15 per cent of members speak Russian as their mother tongue.

Many families at Holy Trinity Church have roots in Russia or have Russian-speaking ancestors. But many also remember how Finland was divided in the aftermath of World II, with many parts of Karelia, with their towns and people, churches and parishes, forced to become part of the Soviet Union.

Orthodox numbers in Finland were boosted in the 1990s with the migration of many people from the former Soviet Union, and now the children and grandchildren of that generation of migrants are in their 30s and make up about half the parish.

Finland shares a 1,300 km border with Russia. The crisis in Ukraine has put an effective end to Russian tourism in Finland, but has also brought a large number of Russian and Ukrainian refugees to Helsinki. Many of the people fleeing Russia have been forced to leave because of the changes in Russian society or for fear of being conscripted.

But, as Father Heikki reminds me, Finland has always been a country of refugees and of the children of immigrants.

He has worked with the World Council of Church in Geneva and the European Conference of Churches in Brussels, and is a former Secretary General of the Ecumenical Council of Finland. He speaks fluent Finnish, Swedish, English, Russian, French, Spanish and Estonian, reflecting the diversity of his parish and parishioners.

On a Sunday morning, more than half the congregation comes from a refugee background, and 25% or a quarter of them can be Ukrainians. ‘We are the closest church to these Ukrainians, and we should be the first to open our arms to welcome them.’

The Russians and Ukrainians in the church show compassion and understanding for each other, Father Heikki says. The Russians are shocked that they cannot return to visit their grandparents. They cannot pay their rents, and they cannot even communicate by main since all postal links were cut off. These Russian speakers include people from Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine that were occupied by Russian troops in the first weeks of the conflict.

He estimates that about 30% of the Russians in his church have relatives in Ukraine, while 40% of the Ukrainians have close family relatives in Russia. Many of the Ukrainians are hoping they can go back to western or central Ukrainians when Spring comes. But the future is uncertain for those who have fled east or south Ukraine, where whole towns and cities have been destroyed.

He thinks one-third of the refugees may remain in Finland. But he also expects more newcomers when the war enters new phases in the coming months.

Uspenski Cathedral is the main cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Finland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Soon after the conflict broke out, Archbishop Leo Makkonen of Helsinki and All Finland accused the Russian Orthodox Church of standing by the state leadership to bless the war and to present it as a legitimate ‘holy war’.

‘Now is the high time for the Church in Russia to realize that it has gone astray,’ Archbishop Leo said. ‘I appeal directly to the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill: Remember the promises you have made before God as a bishop and patriarch. They must be accounted for before the Almighty.’

‘For Christ’s sake, wake up and condemn this evil,’ he implored. ‘Use your influence to promote peace. Do your best to end this war. I pray that humility and wisdom from God will guide you.’

A short walk from Holy Trinity Church and Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral, Uspenski Cathedral is the main cathedral of the Orthodox Church of Finland. It is dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos or the Virgin Mary. Uspenski Cathedral was built above the harbour in 1862-1868 by the architects Aleksey Gornostayev and Ivan Varnek.

The consecration of Holy Trinity Church on 26 August 1827 marks the formal beginning of the Finnish Orthodox Church. But the Church became autonomous and self-governing in 1923 when it gained its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Finnish Orthodox Church is preparing to celebrate the centenary of its separate identity next year. The majority of parishes are not big enough to meet some of the basic and simple needs of the new arrivals. But Father Heikki hopes the church can find a priest to work full-time with the refugees.

‘For Christ’s sake, wake up and condemn this evil’ … Archbishop Leo Makkonen of Helsinki and All Finland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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