The pro-Moscow sentiments within the Georgian Church are strong, and there are concerns that there will be repercussions for the churches of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well
“Ukrainian channels have broadcast a message [which makes it seem like] the Georgian Orthodox Church supported the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, which is not true,” reads a statement that was published on the website of the Georgian patriarchate on 8 October.
The statement notes that the Georgian Orthodox Church has still not made a final decision on the issue, and that it is waiting for the decisions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Russian Orthodox Church.
“Until the Constantinople and Moscow patriarchates make an official decision grounded in the canonical norms of the church, the Georgian Patriarchate will refrain from making an assessment,” the statement reads.
The Georgian patriarchate notes that in both the Russian and Ukrainian media, preconceived messages pertaining to the position of the Georgian Orthodox Church often appear in the media and both sides are trying to use the Georgian church’s words for their own use.
The Patriarchate has drawn attention to the fact that after the visit of the Verkhovna Rada speaker [Ukrainian parliament] Andriy Parubiy to Georgia, the Ukrainian media began broadcasting false information alleging that Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II had made a statement in support of the autocephaly [independence] of the Ukrainian church.
“At the meeting, the guest [Andriy Parubiy] stated that they [the Ukrainian church] desire autocephaly … If this happens, this event may be welcomed; however, our side noted that at this stage it does not seem attainable. For that reason, care needs to be taken so as not to give rise to resistance among the population and for other, more dangerous processes to develop,” read an announcement that was made after Parubiy’s visit.
Andriy Parubiy came to Georgia to participate in the parliamentary assembly of GUAM countries [Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova). At the time, he told journalists that he had met with Patriarch Ilia II who had expressed support for the Ukrainian church’s independence.
Despite the fact that the Georgian church is not rushing to express its position, the patriarch in Kiev is expecting support.
“They [the Georgians] must support us because we are Orthodox Christians – as are they. I don’t see a reason why we shouldn’t be together. Russia attacked both Georgia and Ukraine. We equally suffer and we must pray together. We believe that the Georgian church will join us in this prayer,” Ukrainian Patriarch Filaret told TV channel Rustavi 2.
What Georgian priests and theologians are saying
Chorbishop Yakov says that he supports the independence of the Ukrainian church.
“Ukraine is a big country … it has the right to demand autocephaly. That is my personal opinion,” Chorbishop Yakov told journalists.
He says that the issue will be solved by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Russian church. Chorbishop Yakov notes that if the Ukrainian church receives autocephaly, then we might see a domino effect in other churches which would be a big blow for Russia.
Synod member Metropolitan Anania is of another opinion: the issue must be solved by the Russian church, and the Georgian church must do as the Moscow patriarchate says.
“First, the mother church must recognise the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church. In this case, [the mother church is] the Russian church. If it grants [autocephaly], then of course all the other churches will recognise this as well,” Anania said in an interview with TV channel Pirveli.
eorgian theologians say the church is trying to buy as much time as possible.
“The official position of the Georgian patriarchate is hypocritical and anti-Orthodox,” and is also “a grave sin before god,” says theologist Beka Mindiashvili, giving two reasons:
The first is historical: the Georgian church was taken over by the Russian Empire in a way similar to that of the Ukrainian church. Mindiashvili says that Russia’s interests in Ukraine are not religious, but imperial and geopolitical: it wants to have a strong instrument of political and ideological influence in Ukraine.
“The Georgian church does not remember that it was enslaved in the same way by the Russian Empire, at first through the church, and later through the KGB. The patriarchate is betraying the biblical principle of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’,” Mindiashvili told JAMnews.
The second reason, Mindiashvili says, is that the Georgian Patriarchate is shamelessly lying, almost like the position of Constantinople, saying that autocephaly for Ukraine could lead to religious confrontation in Ukraine.
“In Ukraine, it is namely thanks to the political aggression of Moscow that there is religious confrontation. The only way that leads to Orthodox unity is release from Russian geopolitical influence and the recognition of Ukraine’s religious independence – autocephaly. And not the other way around as the Patriarchate states,” Mindiashvili asserts.
Mindiashvili says that the fact that the Georgian patriarchate is taking such a stance on the issue of the Ukrainian church’s independence shows that it is under strong Russian influence.
Theologist Mirian Gamrekelashvili told Netgazeti in an interview that the Georgian church is waiting for the decision of the Patriarchate of Constantinople as are other churches, but that the Georgian churches are more “pro-Moscow”.
Gamrekelashvili says that the patriarchate’s attitude to the question is also defined by the issue of the status of the churches of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Should the Georgian church recognise the autocephaly of Ukraine, Russia might recognise the autocephaly of the Abkhaz church. “This would be an unauthorised procedure, without international recognition or legitimacy,” Gamrekelashvili believes.
However, Mindiashvili asserts that the issue of the Abkhaz church is not that important, given that religious circles in Abkhaz are already subjugated to Moscow, and Georgian priests cannot go to either Abkhazia or South Ossetia.
“In the Tskhinvali region and Abkhazia, the Russian church and special forces already control the lives of the churches [there]. On Russia’s part, this would only be a formal recognition, which will not be shared by others. Moreover, this would be counterproductive for Russia because it would give the green light to many other churches [to receive autocephaly],” Mindiashvili says.
Russia and Ukraine – the argument around the church
The Russian Orthodox Church states that it is ready to break off contact with the Constantinople Patriarchate should it recognise the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church.
This radical statement was made by Metropolitan Ilarion Alfeev of the Russian Orthodox Church after Constantinople sent exarchs to Ukraine to prepare the church there for independence.
Moscow called this step “insidious”. Kiev meanwhile states that events are moving so fast that the church might receive independence as early as October.
On 14 September, the Holy Synod of the Russian Patriarchate gathered for an emergency meeting and decided to stop worship with the Constantinople hierarchs. It was also decided that the Catholicos-Patriarch of Constantinople will no longer be mentioned in the prayers of the Russian church.
However, an order was given to pray for the overcoming of the Ukrainian split.
Today, there are three branches of the Orthodox church in Ukraine. Of them, only one is recognised by the rest of the Orthodox world – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is not independent and is subject to the Russian Patriarchate. The other two – the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church are called “schismatic groups” by the Russian Patriarchate.
According to sociological studies, as of April 2018 about two-thirds of Ukrainians say that they are Orthodox Christians. Around 43 per cent say that they support the Kiev Patriarchate, while 20 per cent support the Moscow Patriarchate and 0.5 per cent support the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church.
Moreover, Ukrainian sociologists note that five years ago, the situation was rather different: the Moscow Patriarchate had more supporters, but after Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea and the policies of the Kremlin in regards to Ukraine have had their affect on believers.
In April 2018, the two recognised Ukrainian patriarchates, with the support of President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and the Ukrainian Rada, sent an official letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew and requested autocephaly.
This annoyed Moscow.
Moscow considers the Ukrainian Church its canonical territory and does not intend to give it up.
he Ukrainian Church has large significance for Russia for several reasons.
The first and probably the most significant reason is political: Ukrainian autocephaly will further extract Ukraine from Russian orbit and its influence. In Russian society, this will be perceived as a defeat for Moscow’s policy, which does not suit the Kremlin.
The second reason is the huge amount of property owned by the Ukrainian Church and which is managed by the Russian Orthodox Church. In Ukraine, there are more than 12,000 churches and religious institutions, which is equal to half the total property of the Russian Church.
A third and no less important reason, this time historical and symbolic, is that Russia and the Russian Church begin their history in the times of Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus. Thus, Russia is not going to cede this important historical heritage to the Ukrainian Church.
Russia has already undergone the experience of breaking off relations with Constantinople. The reason back then was similar: in 1996, Constantinople recognised the autocephaly of the Estonian Orthodox Church. Then, the schism between Moscow and Constantinople lasted for several months. However, Estonia is not Ukraine, in relation to which Russia still has certain possessive feelings and sentiments.
“We will never agree to change the holy canonical borders of our Church, because Kiev is the spiritual cradle of Holy Russia, as is Mtskheta for Georgia or Kosovo for Serbia,” Russian Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said back in 2016.
“In creating an independent Ukrainian Church, the Russian imperial project will come to an end. If Russia’s history does not begin with Kievan Rus or with the ascension of Prince Vladimir, then what does it start from? What should be considered the origin of its history – the Golden Horde?” stated a representative of the Kiev Patriarchate, Bishop Evstatiy, in an interview with the BBC.