War splits Orthodox churches in Russia and Georgia
War splits Orthodox churches in Russia and Georgia
By Sophia Kishkovsky
Friday, September 5, 2008
MOSCOW: While leaders and generals quarrel over the strategic map of
Georgia and Russia's future relations with both its neighbors and the
West, the Christians of both nations have fretted over the worrisome
loss of Orthodox unity.
Post-Soviet Russia has re-embraced Orthodoxy, as has Georgia, and has
used it to stir support on a range of issues - for Serbia,
particularly when NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, or in claims against
Ukraine, whose western territories are dominated by Uniates, or
Eastern Rite Catholics, long at loggerheads with the Orthodox Church.
But the prospect of two Orthodox nations at war did nothing to deter
Russia, or Georgia, from war in August. The patriarchs of both the
Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches issued strong and immediate
appeals for peace. In the case of the Russian Orthodox patriarch,
Aleksy II, this was all the more unusual for putting him at odds with
"Today, blood is being shed and people are perishing in South Ossetia
and my heart deeply grieves over it," the patriarch said in a
statement published as fighting raged on Aug. 8. "Orthodox Christians
are among those who have raised their hands against each other.
Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love
are in conflict."
Two days later, Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church
gave a sermon in Tbilisi, noting that "one thing concerns us very
deeply - that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians."
According to a translation on the Web site of the Georgian church
(www.patriarchate.ge), he added: "This is an unprecedented act of
relations between our countries. Reinforce your prayer and God will
Despite the alarm, Orthodox ties proved strong enough to offer some
relief to civilians swept up in the conflict. The Georgian patriarch
made a pastoral visit, bringing food and aid, to Gori, a central
Georgian city that was occupied by Russian forces.
Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, chairman of the
Moscow Patriarchate's Department of External Church Relations, said
the Russian church facilitated this visit and conveyed letters from
Patriarch Ilia to President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister
Vladimir Putin. Like other Russian politicians since the end of
communism, both men have made much of their Orthodox faith.
In the letters, Patriarch Ilia noted that "Russian air forces have
been bombing Georgian cities and villages, Orthodox Christians have
been killing each other," according to his patriarchate's Web site.
He expressed sorrow at Georgian and Ossetian deaths, and rejected
Russia's charges of Georgian genocide as "a pure lie."
The Georgia conflict marks the first war between countries with
majority Orthodox Christian populations since the Second Balkan War
in 1913 pitted Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Romania against
Bulgaria in a prelude to World War I.
Priests and others close to the Orthodox churches, studying their
role in post-Soviet society, have voiced anxiety that, while religion
has recovered its stature, calls to prayer could not avert bloodshed
between two peoples who share Orthodoxy, and centuries of deep
cultural, political, economic and social ties.
"What these events show is the collapse of the myth of unity of
Orthodox peoples and the collapse of the myth of the supreme
peacemaking ability of Orthodox civilization," said Anatoly Krasikov,
director of the Center for Religious and Social Studies of the
Institute of Europe in Moscow.
"Of course it is not Orthodoxy that is to blame for this collapse,
but concrete people, functionaries of the church administrative
structures of Russian and Georgian Orthodoxy. They, for all practical
purposes, remained aloof and did nothing to end a war that was unjust
from all sides."
Russia has the world's largest Orthodox Christian population, with an
estimated 75 percent of its over 140 million people identifying
themselves as Orthodox (although only 10 percent are regular
churchgoers), according to a poll last year by the Russian Public
Opinion Research Center. The Moscow Patriarchate is vying with the
smaller Patriarchate of Constantinople for predominance in the Orthodox world.
Georgia has fewer than five million people, but is one of the most
ancient Christian countries in the world. Its church dates back to
the fourth century, far outpacing the Russian church, which dates its
founding to the Baptism of Rus in 988, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev
brought Orthodoxy to the banks of the Dnieper River.
Russia annexed Georgia, which was seeking protection from Persia, in
1801, absorbed its church and abolished its Patriarchate, which was
restored - in name, at least - only after the Bolsheviks came to power.
In Soviet times, Georgia became something of a refuge for persecuted
Orthodox monks from Russia, said Nikolai Mitrokhin, a specialist on
the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet Union. From Czarist times
through the Soviet era, Georgian clergy trained in Russia and Kiev.
"For Georgia, Russia is this love-hate relationship," said Tamara
Grdzelidze, an Oxford-trained theologian from Georgia who works at
the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva and has edited
an English-language history of the Orthodox Church of Georgia.
"Our patriarch was educated in Russia, and this is the best he knows
and he respects it highly," she added. "This is a very complicated
and long history of relationship between the churches. When Russia
annexed Georgia in the beginning of the 19th century, it abolished
the king, it abolished the patriarch in 1811, it persecuted the
Georgian language at all levels, including the church."
The latest conflict has stirred those memories on both sides, rankling each.
Last week, Patriarch Ilia appealed to Medvedev and Putin to end the
confrontation and not to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "This
will give rise to separatism in your country, and in the future you
will have many more problems than we have in Georgia today," he said,
according to the Interfax news agency. "This is worth meditating upon."
The next day, Medvedev said in a televised speech that events
compelled him to recognize the enclaves' independence.
"This is an especially painful situation for us because four Orthodox
peoples are in conflict," said Deacon Andrei Kuraev, an outspoken
Russian Orthodox missionary who is famous for his Web site, books and
sermons at rock concerts by bands that have turned to Orthodoxy.
Parts of South Ossetia's and Abkhazia's populations are Orthodox and
do not want to be under the Orthodox Church in Georgia, Kuraev said.
Ossetia and Abkhazia also have strong pagan elements, said Mitrokhin.
Islam is also present there.
The Russian church was surprisingly tepid about Medvedev's
recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, saying it did not
necessarily mean that their Orthodox communities would come under
"The Moscow Patriarchate must take political realities into account,"
said the Reverend Nikolai Balashov, the church's secretary for
inter-Orthodox relations. But in resolving canonical jurisdiction
over the territories, he added, "dialogue with the Georgian church"
is more important.