Latvia postpones Russian Patriarch's visit amid Ukraine crisis

Latvia has asked the head of the Russian Orthodox church, Patriarch Kirill, to postpone a planned visit amid tension between Russia and the Baltic states over Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

A letter from Latvian President Andris Berzins requesting that the May visit be put off indefinitely was handed to Kirill's representatives in Moscow on Thursday.

"The visit is postponed due to the circumstances regarding sanctions and the general international situation," foreign ministry spokesman Karlis Eihenbaums told AFP, adding that the request had been made "absolutely" because of Russian activity in Ukraine.

"The visit might take place later this year or it might be even later on. It very much depends on the international situation and Russia's behaviour."

He said the request was consistent with a March 21 decision by the European Union, of which Latvia is a member, to suspend all high-level contacts with Russian authorities.

"We are a very open society here and there are a number of people for whom this visit is important, but if anyone can blame themselves it is the Russians," Eihenbaums said.

The ex-Soviet Baltic state, which has a population of two million people, counts around 350,000 Orthodox adherents among its large Russian minority, making it one of the country's three major religions alongside Lutheranism and Catholicism.

But Berzins's letter also stems in part from domestic pressure, with many prominent Latvians claiming in recent weeks that his response to the Ukraine crisis has been weak compared to that of his counterparts in neighbouring Estonia and Lithuania.

Some even called on Berzins to step down, prompting him to issue a strong defence of his actions, saying on Tuesday that he had expressed "clear and direct views" regarding the situation in Crimea.