Georgian Orthodox Church in the context of Russian-Georgian crisis

  • Georgian Orthodox Churc
  • 19.Aug ‘19
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On 21 June, Georgian President Salome Zourabichvili stated that the “Orthodox union” of Russia and Georgia is impossible. “How is it possible to forge an Orthodox  alliance with a country that is an occupier and it is not just about our territories but also about combat with religion and Christian commandments. There is nothing Orthodox here! Using religion to achieve political goals is a conventional method for Russia! ”

        In order to fully assess the statement of the President, it is necessary to recall the social and political role of the Georgian Orthodox Church in modern Georgia.

        The Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) is one of the independent (autocephalous) Orthodox churches. It occupies the sixth place in the diptychs of the Slavic churches and the ninth in the diptychs of the ancient Eastern Patriarchs. It was christianized at the beginning of the 4th century. In 1811 due to the accession to Russia, it was deprived of independence, becoming part of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1917 the GOC attempted to separate from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) but as a result, it received autocephaly only in 1943 due to the direct involvement  of the Joseph Stalin, who was Georgian himself.

        The GOC plays a big role in the public life of Georgia. Article 9 of the Constitution of Georgia consolidate the “exceptional role of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the history of Georgia.” A few years ago, the Patriarch of the GOC, Ilia II, possessed the highest level of trust and respect among the population of Georgia. According to the results of the 2014 survey, among the government, political and public institutions in Georgia, the GOC has the highest level of trust, 94% of respondents trust the church (the second is the army – 93%, the third is the media – 84%, the fourth is police – 82%).

        Regardless of the anti-Russian political course pursued in Georgia since the time of Saakashvili, the GOC has always preserved positive relationship with the ROC. Even during the military conflict in South Ossetia in 2008, Patriarch Ilia did not distance himself from the ROC. The Patriarch himself stated in an interview that as relations between Russia and Georgia were (and still remain) strained, the ROC and the GOC preserved fraternal relations, and it was the only way of their communication that connects them.

        However, over the past few years, anti-Russian and pro-Western voices have been more and more clearly heard among the episcopate of the GOC. The reaction to the Ukrainian autocephaly can be considered here as a litmus test. On July 21, a meeting of the Holy Synod of the GOC on the Ukrainian autocephaly took place. The synod was unable to reach a decision on whether to support this initiative or not. This indicates that by now, pro-Western forces have emerged within the GOC, traditionally loyal to the policy of the ROC. And it distance the GOC from the influence of Moscow. It was significant that after the meeting of the Synod of the GOC, the member of the Synod of the GOC, Metropolitan Petr Chkondii (Tsaava), spoke in the media, saying that Ukraine should not obey the first hierarch of the conquering country. A similar public statement was made by the priest of the GOC, Ilia Chigladze. It should be noted that the United States is interested in the higher clergy of the GOC. In 2017, a meeting was held between US Vice President Mike Pence and Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II. Also in 2017, more than half of the members of the Synod of the GOC visited the United States, where they spoke in favor of the switch of the GOC and Georgia to the pro-Western course.

        Thus, it is possible to predict that church ties for the resolution of the current conflict can no longer be used as it was in 2008. On the part of Russia and the leadership of the ROC, more attention should have been paid to Metropolitan Senaki and Chkhorotsku Shio (Mudjiri), the locum tenens of the Patriarch of the GOC, who maintains warm feelings towards Russia.

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