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As relations soured between Byzantine and Latin Christians after the Great Schism of 1054, affairs between the Orthodox Rus’ of Novgorod and the Catholic Swedes turned violent. Squeezed between the two, Finland became a battleground, as each power tried to control the region, its people and its faith. After generations of war, a permanent peace in 1323, known as the Treaty of Nöteborg, established the borders between the rivals and settled the religious question. Those Finnic tribes living in Swedish-controlled Finland eventually adopted the Catholic faith, assimilated with Swedish society and participated in the cultural life of the Christian West. Those living in Karelia remained Orthodox.

The Finns of Karelia celebrated the Divine Liturgy in Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Orthodox Eastern Slavs, and thus closely identified with what became the Russian Empire.

Modern era. In 1617, the Swedes overran Karelia. They torched the ancient monasteries of Lake Ladoga and drove out its monks. By then zealous Lutherans, the Swedes imposed Protestant practices on the surviving Orthodox populace. The Swedes translated Lutheran catechisms into Church Slavonic, required their use in Orthodox parishes and forbade the formation of Orthodox clergy. Rather than live subjugated, the majority of the area’s Orthodox population migrated to the Russian city of Tver, where their language and customs survived until the early 20th century.

In 1721 — after more than 20 years of war — the imperial forces of Russia’s Tsar Peter the Great retook Karelia. On the islands of Lake Ladoga, devout Russians reestablished the area’s ancient monasteries and a flowering of religious life ensued.

From St. Petersburg, their new capital on the Gulf of Finland, Peter’s successors turned their attention to the West. Eager to gain access to ports and commercial routes, as well as secure the area around the capital, they pressed for control of all of Finland.

In 1809, Tsar Alexander I wrested Finland from Sweden, though retaining a constitution created for it by the Swedish king in 1772. Until Finland’s independence in 1917, a diverse Orthodox Church flourished there: a Russian-dominated church in the capital of Helsinki and in garrison churches serving the Russian Imperial Army; a Finnish-dominated church serving parishes in Karelia and remote areas, particularly above the Arctic Circle, inhabited by indigenous populations such as the Skolt Saame; and a church serving the Swedish-speaking bourgeoisie.

As Finnish leaders consolidated their power and asserted their autonomy, Orthodox leaders translated the liturgical books into the Finnish and Swedish vernaculars. They also translated works of Orthodox history, spirituality and theology. To encourage further developments, the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church set up an eparchy in 1892 for Finland’s diverse Orthodox community.

Nevertheless, the assertion of Finnish identity — even within the Orthodox Church — prompted an era of Russification, which began soon after Tsar Nicholas II ascended the throne in 1894.

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Tags: Ecumenism Orthodox Church Church history Finland