Union of the various branches of the Orthodox Church in the United States is inevitable, according to Metropolitan Archbishop Philip Saliba of the Antiochian Orthodox Church in North America.

The archbishop predicted the union will take place within 25 years, paving the way for the first U.S. Orthodox patriarch, he said.

Most Orthodox Christians in the United States are immigrants or children or grandchildren of immigrants from Greece, Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Serbia and other Eastern European and Middle Eastern lands where the Orthodox faith has been the dominant expression of Christianity.

"It is just a matter of time," he said. "This union already exists in terms of doctrine and dogma. But we are divided administratively by ethnic barriers. We have the same faith, but not the same organization."

He said the foundation for union already exists through the Standing Conference of all Orthodox bishops in this country, of which he is vice president.

Metropolitan Saliba said achievement of union is difficult because of the diversity within the Orthodox community in the United States. "Some churches in this country have very strong ties with their mother churches. Therefore, we often have to put up with old country church politics." He said, for example, that there are three different Russian Orthodox bodies in the United States.

"Our young people who were born in this country want a united Orthodox Church of America adminstered by laws written here and with liturgies and sermons in English," he said.

Despite his prediction that the first major merger will come within 25 years. Metropolitan Saliba said it will take much longer for all 20 branches of U.S. Orthodoxy to join the union. He said the first union will probably involve the Orthodox Church in America (the independent Russian Orthodox Church), the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North America and the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America.

The lack of unity among the Orthodox causes them to be underexposed in the media, and thus to the public, the metropolitan said. With some 5 million Orthodox in this country, he said, a united Orthodox Church would be larger than most American denominations, including the Episcopal Church, United Presbyterian Church, and the three Lutheran churches.