Georgian, Russian Churches at Odds over Sovereignty Issue

By David Iberi

On September 19, 2010, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill I, sent a letter to Eduard Kokoity, a Russian-appointed leader of the occupied Georgian province of Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia. Congratulating Kokoity on the 20th anniversary of the “Republic of South Ossetia,” the Russian patriarch praised “the Russian-Ossetian relations aimed at strengthening the stability in the region and the friendship and cooperation between the peoples of our two countries.”

This highly politicized move angered the Georgian public, government and church leaders alike, especially since the words Kirill used in his message belonged more to a Kremlin or FSB official than to a patriarch of the Christian Church. On September 27, Georgian media reported that Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Church, had already sent a letter to his Russian colleague “expressing discontent” over the support given to “the separatist regimes” that caused “an utterly negative reaction” in the Georgian society. The Georgian patriarch’s communication was announced on the day when Georgia marked the 17th anniversary of the fall of Sokhumi to Russian-supported militias in Abkhazia.

Russian authorities and representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church have frequently described religion as something that “unites the Russian and Georgian peoples.” And there still remain a considerable number of people within the Georgian Church that oppose Tbilisi’s pro-Western ties and hope for a restoration of “the old friendship” between Georgia and Russia. The irony is that steps similar to those that Kirill chose to take help reduce the prowess and moral authority of the pro-Russian Georgian clerics and further alienate the majority of the Georgian public.

The Georgian Church already complains that its priests and monks are not allowed by the Russian occupying forces into Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia, where many of the most ancient and revered Georgian churches and monasteries are located, not to mention the displaced people, victims of ethnic cleansing, who are forbidden to even temporarily visit their hometowns and villages or the graves of their relatives.

In an interview that caused quite a stir in Georgia, Andrei Kuraev, a professor at the Russian Patriarchate’s Academy, recently said that “the Georgian Church’s existing problems in its Abkhazia and South Ossetia eparchies could be solved by temporarily allowing the Russian patriarch to chair over those units.” In Kuraev’s words, this voluntary transfer would help “avoid any violation of the common Orthodox laws that includes noninterference into each other’s affairs as one of the most sacrosanct principles.”

Apparently, the Russian patriarchate leaders are contemplating some “legal mechanisms” that would help both avoid a schism with the Georgian Church and at the same time be in line with the Kremlin’s official Georgia policy. Under the incumbent leadership of the Georgian Church, that goal is hardly attainable.