Religious freedom advocate condemns Orthodox Church for punishing priest over Israel prayers

A general view shows the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem's Old City December 4, 2017.
A general view shows the Dome of the Rock and Jerusalem's Old City December 4, 2017. | (Photo: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

A priest in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says he was forced to retire by the Orthodox Church in America because he gave sermons honoring the Jewish roots of Christianity and encouraged his congregants to pray for Israel.

Canadian Jewish News reports that Father Vladimir Tobin of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Church received a letter on Aug. 12 from Archbishop Irénée of the Archdiocese of Canada informing him that he must retire from the Eastern Orthodox denomination because of a “Jewish twist in your ministry.”

News of Tobin’s forced retirement drew the ire of American evangelical leader and religious freedom advocate Johnnie Moore, who also serves as a commissioner of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. 

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“To be clear, this is church-sanctioned anti-Semitism and they ought to be absolutely ashamed of themselves,” Moore, who also serves as president of the Congress of Christian Leaders, told The Christian Post in an email. 

In an interview with Canadian Jewish News, the 77-year-old religious leader said some of his sermons over the last few years have tied in Christianity’s roots and the Jewish background of the Old Testament. 

Since his studies at Dalhousie University, Tobin said he has been well aware of links between Judaism and early Christianity. Although he was originally ordained as an Anglican priest, he was urged to embrace the Orthodox tradition.

“I was happy in Orthodoxy, but felt there was some anti-Jewishness there,” Tobin said. “I wrote a piece for publication, but was told by my superiors that it was ‘too Jewish.’ That increased my determination that Christianity grew from Judaism. My own theology recognized a faith that started with Abraham and grew through the centuries through Christ.”

Tobin said he first received a letter from Irénée informing him that he would be retired in April following a complaint from an assistant priest that he had included prayers for Israel in his services.

At the time, Tobin responded by saying that he does regularly pray for Israel but asked why he should be prevented from praying for other countries when the main point is to pray for peace in the Middle East. 

Irénée agreed to reinstate Tobin after the parish council wrote a letter opposing the forced retirement, according to CNJ. 

But a few months later on Aug. 12, Tobin received  Irénée’s latest letter informing him that he would be placed on retirement after all. The priest was permitted to say his farewells to congregants but was told he would have to remove all personal possessions from the church premises by Aug. 26. 

“I don’t feel right deserting the congregation like this,” Tobin was quoted as saying. “I had planned to retire in a year or so, by my 78th birthday, but obviously wanted to retire on my own terms. I would have been sad. The congregation would have been sad, but everyone would have understood. This way is not the best thing.”

CP reached out to Irénée and the Archdiocese of Canada for a response to Tobin’s claims. A response is pending. 

Yael Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, praised the priest for being “courageous” in a statement. 

“In case you've ever wondered whether the work of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is important, this is exhibit A,” said Eckstein, whose father launched the organization in the 1980s to bridge the divide between the two religious communities.  

“Anti-Israel bigotry is unfortunately still alive and well in certain far corners of Christianity,” she added. “The bridge between Christians and Jews that we have been building for thirty years is nearly built — mainly, because of hundreds of millions of evangelicals — but there is still more work to do.”

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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