The Georgian Orthodox Church has decided to take a cautious stance amid heightened tensions in the Orthodox world over the autocephaly (independence) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from the Russian Patriarchate.
That the Patriarchate would not yet voice its position on the matter was first announced on December 27, after the meeting of the Holy Synod, the main decision-making body of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
The Holy Synod said then that it touched upon the “grave clerical situation” taking place in Ukraine, and expressed regret over the “deteriorated relations” between the churches of Constantinople and Russia, but decided to return to the issue at the upcoming Synodal gathering, scheduled tentatively for spring.
The Patriarch’s Locum Tenens, Bishop Shio (Mujiri) of the Eparchy of Senaki and Chkhorotsku, reiterated the decision on January 7, two days after the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, signed a decree of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, formalizing its split from the Russian Patriarchate.
“The Holy Synod has already expressed its position; we will familiarize ourselves with the text of the tomos (decree), and the decision will of course follow after that,” the locum tenens said.
Bishop Nikoloz of Akhalkalaki and Kumurdo commented on the issue as well, saying “it would not be correct,” if the Georgian Church as the junior patriarchate (editor’s note: Georgia is ranked ninth in the diptych of the Orthodox Churches) voiced its position before those preceding it.
Political leaders have followed suit. Asked to comment on the matter on January 7, Parliament Speaker Irakli Kobakhidze said the authorities’ position would be made public “following consultations with Ukrainian friends and with the Patriarch, with the Patriarchate.”
MP Mamuka Mdinaradze, chair of the Georgian Dream faction in the Parliament, echoed Kobakhidze’s point. “We are waiting for the position of the patriarchate; it would not be right, if I voiced my position before the Orthodox Church issues its decision,” he noted.
Caution of Georgian civil and ecclesial authorities is not acceptable for the opposition parties.
Gigi Ugulava of the European Georgia said the government’s decision not to congratulate the Ukrainians on the independence of their church “is a political folly and disgrace.”
“It is hardly justifiable, even if you are keeping political ‘correctness’, to consider this an internal church affair and wait for the official position of the patriarchate,” Ugulava noted.
Khatia Dekanoidze of the United National Movement stressed the authorities’ reluctance to voice their position is “alarming.” “I would like to remind that this does not relate to church affairs only, this concerns our struggle for freedom against our common enemy,” she added.
Abkhazia, S.Ossetia at stake?
The Georgian Orthodox Church has had complicated relations with the Moscow Patriarchate, but has generally pursued a pro-Moscow stance in external church affairs, particularly with respect to the role and the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
The two churches, however, have been at odds over the issue of Abkhazia and Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia, Georgia’s two Russian-held provinces.
Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions are under the canonical jurisdiction of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but remain inaccessible for its clergy (with the exception of Akhalgori Municipality).
The Russian Patriarchate operates in both regions together with several non-canonical church groups that seek independence from the Georgian Patriarchate – the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia and the Abkhaz Orthodox Church in Abkhazia and the Alan Diocese in South Ossetia.
The Russian Orthodox Church refuses to formally recognize these groups, but apparently Tbilisi fears its decision on recognizing the independence of the Ukrainian Church could trigger countermeasures, including the retaliatory recognition of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church, which is loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate and is backed by the region’s authorities.