Georgia Dragged Into Russian-Ukrainian Orthodox Controversy
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 56
On March 25, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, in a letter to the spiritual head of global Christian Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, called for defusing tensions in the Ukrainian Orthodox community. The letter stated: “The government of Ukraine has its own position and takes into account religious depths to a lesser extent” (Patriarchate.ge, March 25). In this way, the patriarch of Georgia was reacting to the desperate appeal of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow on March 16 in connection with Ukraine’s decision to evict Russian clergy from the Kyev-Pechersk Lavra. Kirill, in his address, hoped that his “voice would be heard” in resolving these “religious persecutions” (YouTube, March 16).
In this, the Georgian Orthodox Church was one of the first official bodies to respond, despite the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church has caused a significant amount of harm to both the Georgian state and Georgian Orthodoxy. Presently, the Georgian Patriarchate actively maintains relations with the Moscow Patriarchate. However, in Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has spread to the religious sphere and caused a series split in the world of Christian Orthodoxy, the Georgian Orthodox Church is trying to maintain a neutral position—though, on the surface, it still gives the impression that it is more sympathetic to Moscow. This acquires special significance due to the fact that, for the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) is a key foreign policy instrument that is actively supporting Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine (YouTube, April 7, 2022).
On March 22, during his visit to Lithuania, Bartholomew I imposed responsibility for the war crimes being committed by Russian forces in Ukraine on the ROC. He declared, “The church and the state leadership in Russia cooperated in the crime of aggression and shared the responsibility for the resulting crimes, including the shocking abduction of Ukrainian children” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, March 22). Just three days later, the ecumenical patriarch received a letter from Ilia II in support of the ROC’s position, which put the Georgian Orthodox Church in an awkward position. Ultimately, the Georgian patriarch’s letter turned out to be more restrained than the reaction of some leaders, including that of the Serbian Orthodox Church, who called the decision of the Ukrainian authorities to expel Russian clergy an act of “state terror” (Spc.rs, March 28).
The Georgian church is autocephalous and is not directly subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate. However, the Georgian church considers itself obliged to take into account Moscow’s interests, including stubbornly refusing to recognize the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. At the moment, two main Orthodox churches exist in Ukraine: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which previously dominated Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, or Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the formation of which took place in 2018 and is a result of the revival of Ukrainian national identity (DW, September 3, 2022). Until recently, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the main Christian Orthodox monastery in Ukraine, served as the main residence for the UOC-MP.
In 2019, the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and called for all Orthodox churches, including in Georgia, to do the same. Even then, in January 2019, a special delegation of the ecumenical patriarch came to Georgia to convince the Patriarchate of Georgia to recognize the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, with the delegation expressing the hope that the “Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia has the wisdom to make the proper decision” (Facebook.com/radiotavisupleba, January 30, 2019).
But soon, in February 2019, high representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), essentially threatened the Georgian church, saying: “Most of the clerics of the Georgian Patriarchate are very well aware of the ecclesiastical reality and the serious consequences of such a decision” (Rustavi2.ge, February 1, 2019). Early on, the Georgian church had stated it was in the process of considering this issue. Then, the Georgian Patriarchate was silent on the issue for a time. Finally, on April 3, a high-ranking representative of the Georgian Patriarchate, Andria Jaghmaidze, proclaimed: “[We] are waiting for what others will do and what the people of Ukraine themselves will decide, since apart from the Church of Constantinople, only three other churches have recognized the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church” (Imedi.ge, April 3).
In truth, the Georgian Orthodox Church is practically a hostage of the ROC, which partly explains the continued loyalty of the Georgian Patriarchate to the Moscow Patriarchate. Since the 1990s, Moscow has already enjoyed de facto control over two parts of Georgia—Abkhazia and the so-called “South Ossetia.” For its part, the Moscow church, violating all legal norms and church laws, seized all Georgian churches and monasteries in these territories, expelled all Georgian clergy and carried out the Russification of religious institutions (JAM-news, February 23, 2021). However, after 2008, having recognized the independence of Abkhazia and “South Ossetia,” the Moscow Patriarchate did not recognize the autocephaly of the so-called “Abkhazian Orthodox Church.”
In practice, Moscow encourages religious separatism in these occupied regions in every possible way to increase pressure on the Georgian Orthodox Church, indirectly blackmailing it with the possible recognition of autocephaly for the Abkhazian church. In this blackmail, the ROC uses the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, with residence in Damascus, Syria, which is under Moscow’s de facto control. Remarkably, in May 2021, the patriarch of Antioch, John X, hosted the leader of Abkhazia’s puppet regime, Aslan Bzhania, in Damascus (YouTube, May 19, 2021). Since then, it has been assumed that the Patriarchate of Antioch, on the instructions of Moscow, would recognize the autocephaly of the Abkhazian church. And though it has not yet happened, the possibility of such a decision continues to hang over the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Formally, the Moscow Patriarchate recognizes the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the territories of Abkhazia and “South Ossetia” but does not allow the Georgian church to operate on the ground in these regions. Furthermore, the full title of Georgian Patriarch Ilia II—“His Holiness and Beatitude, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Metropolitan Bishop of Bichvinta and Tskhum-Abkhazia”—includes “Abkhazia,” which emphasizes the jurisdiction of the Georgian Orthodox Church in that region (Patriarchate.ge, accessed April 5). For many years, however, Moscow has refused to indicate this full status in official documents or in letters addressed to the Georgian patriarch.
Today, the Moscow Patriarchate finds itself in a difficult situation: it is dramatically losing its ecclesiastical influence in Ukraine and is being forced to resort to supporting some of its own victims, including the Georgian Orthodox Church. For its part, Georgian society is rather critical of Georgia’s possible participation in the Orthodox coalition supporting Russia and its aggression against Ukraine. Thus, the time has come for the Patriarchate of Georgia to hear not only “the voice” of the Moscow Patriarchate but also its own believers, who actively support Ukraine and consider Russia the enemy.