Georgian Orthodox Leader Unexpectedly Weighs Into Ukraine Church Conflict

On March 25, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II, the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, sent a letter to Bartholomew I, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, expressing his “concern” about the “current circumstances in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church” and asked Bartholomew I to help “reduce tensions” by “in the first stage, the creation of conditions for peaceful coexistence, and then a peaceful step towards mutual rapprochement.”

By making this call to the primus inter pares of the Orthodox Christian Churches, the Georgian patriarch essentially stepped into an intra-Ukrainian religious conflict with wider political undertones.

The Ukraine Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is facing a potential ban in Ukraine, and several of its clergy were denied citizenship for condoning the Kremlin’s aggression. They were also permanently denied the right to use the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the major monastic complex in the Ukrainian capital.

In the letter, Ilia II expresses his “deep heartache” over the Russia-Ukraine war, “taking the lives of soldiers who defend their homeland and the lives of thousands of innocent people.” But highlighting the patriotism and sacrifice of the Ukrainian clergy in this war, he particularly calls for dialogue with UOC-MP and its leader, Onufriy. Metropolitan Onufriy has been strongly against Ukraine’s European integration and has abstained from commenting on Russia’s 2014-15 invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas. But after the renewed Russian full-scale intervention, he spoke for the “sovereignty and integrity” of Ukraine. He appealed to Putin to “immediately stop this fratricidal war,” which he likened to Cain’s crime.

“At present, the Orthodox world faces a number of serious challenges, and every positive step against this background will be of great value,” – wrote Ilia II.

Still silent on Ukrainian Church’s Independence

Ilia II’s intervention in this intricate affair is a surprise, especially since the GOC has been refraining from adopting a position on the self-governance of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), which was conferred by Patriarch Bartholomew I on January 5, 2019.

Three GOC bishops expressed their support for granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church back in 2019, noting that “Ukraine deserves to be an autocephalous church because it has been fighting for independence and autocephaly for centuries.”

Georgia’s president, Salome Zurabishvili, recently supported the independence of the UOC. “Probably [the Ukrainians] should get autocephaly for their church in due time,” President Zurabishvili said shortly after Russia launched a full-scale war in Ukraine.

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