Georgian Patriarch Ilia II calls on the Orthodox clergy to refrain from voicing political statements ahead of the upcoming presidential elections. The statement follows a wave of criticism against Salome Zurabishvili, whose presidential candidacy has been endorsed by the ruling Georgian Dream-Democratic Georgia (GDDG).
“Unfortunately, with elections approaching, some clergy members are voicing statements containing political messages, including inappropriate references to certain political figures,” reads the statement signed by Ilia II on September 19.
“We call on the priests and high ranking clerics to refrain from similar actions; we would also like to remind them that the Church had always been and will remain to be a politically neutral, unifying force,” the Patriarch wrote, urging the Orthodox clerics to avoid “casting a shadow over the Church and themselves.”
Church Leaders against Zurabishvili
The Patriarch’s statement was released after Salome Zurabishvili’s church-related remarks of September 18 drew wide condemnation among high ranking religious leaders. It also comes after church-led protests over the cannabis cultivation law and Zurabishvili’s controversial statements on the Russo-Georgian war.
Commenting the clergy members’ criticism of Zurabishvili’s war-related remarks, the presidential-hopeful said she was against the involvement of church leaders in political affairs.
“I do not understand how the Church can be involved in the election campaign to such degree, and as president, as someone responsible for fulfilling the constitutional concordat, I will have a strong opposition to it, since it is a violation of every agreement that exists between the Orthodox Church and the State,” she said.
“Such high ranking leaders are involved in something that is not their business and that they should be involved in – neither through support, nor through insults,” the candidate added.
Senior clerics responded to Zurabishvili’s remarks with fury.
“That we are members of the clergy does not mean that we are not citizens of this country; as citizens and as leaders of our parish, everything concerns us, everything that relates to the spiritual degradation of our parish,” Metropolitan Anton of Vani and Bagdati told reporters on September 19.
“I do not know why she has such thinking … It is clear that she has issues with judgment,” he added. Asked whether he thought the GDDG was on board with Zurabishvili’s remarks, Metropolitan Anton said: “I cannot tell you for sure, but Salome has always been taking decisions that tend to appease to the authorities, and that is a fact.”
“It is unfortunate that she voiced such remarks, because the fate and the spiritual state of our parish concerns the Church and the bishops,” said Metropolitan Melqisedek of Ubisi and Margveti diocese.
Metropolitan Andria of Gori and Ateni repeated the messages of fellow bishops, saying: “it is strange that she thinks the Church should not be involved and should not be voicing its position on such a painful and important matter.”
Father Kakhaber Gogotishvili, who leads Moscow’s Georgian parish, said: “That the Church is involved [in the electoral campaign], is not true … I do not have a right to call on my parish to support specific candidates … but I, personally, will not vote for her and I have every right to do so as a citizen of this country.”
“I will not give concrete reasons, but I do not like her positions, including on who started the war and many others,” Father Kakhaber added.
Salome Zurabishvili responded to clerics’ remarks on September 19, saying her statement was “grossly misinterpreted.” “My positions on the 2008 war, on decriminalization of marijuana consumption and on the role of our mother Church, are well known; gross manipulation with assessments that are torn out of context is extremely harmful for our country, for the political process and public integrity,” she said.
Earlier Church Criticism
Zurabishvili came under clerical attack earlier as well, for her August war-related remarks, in which she accused the Georgian side of starting “the  part of the war.”
Bishop Saba of the North American Diocese was the first to have publicly criticized her. “We have elections coming up … I do not want to give direct instructions [whom you should vote for], but I think voting for those who are against the [pro-western] choice of our nation, who sympathize with the North, is a betrayal of the nation,” he told his parish on September 9.
Metropolitan Anton of Vani and Bagdati echoed the sentiments, saying Bishop Saba’s statement was “a bold truth.”
Metropolitan Melqisedek of Ubisi and Margveti added: “claims that the war was started by Georgia, is unacceptable; Georgia has been struggling for its existence in the last two centuries and accusing Georgia is of course unacceptable.”
Metropolitan Petre of Chkondidi, who has been a vocal critic of GDDG government, spoke on Zurabishvili’s war-related remarks as well, calling on the parish in his sermon on September 16 not to make “a wrong choice” in the upcoming presidential elections.
“Georgia has never invaded another country … every war that Georgia had was on its territory, and saying Georgia started a war on its territory is extremely wrong; this is either foolishness or an intentional policy,” Metropolitan Petre added.