Vienna, August 27 – The Russian Orthodox Church may turn out to be one of the biggest losers as a result of the Kremlin’s aggression in Georgia and subsequent recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, losing its position of power in the former Soviet republics and its influence in the Orthodox and Christian worlds more generally.
That is because Moscow’s actions took place despite an appeal by Iliya II, the catholicos-patriarch of Georgia, not to support separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the Russian government’s rebuff of that appeal not only will alienate the Georgian autocephalous church but also give new energy to efforts by Kyiv to form a single autocephalous Orthodox Church there.
Given that nearly half the parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate are in Ukraine – parishes whose number allows it to claim to be the largest Orthodox church in the world – and that many bishops there were handpicked by Moscow to ensure the election of Kirill as the next patriarch, the shift of their allegiance would have a major impact on Orthodoxy and interfaith relations.
On Monday evening, Iliya II issued an appeal to the president and prime minister of the Russian Federation asking them to refrain from going ahead with the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=22353; the text of his appeal is available at www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=news&id=64905&topic=593).
Georgia, the catholicos-patriarch pointed out, has always contained many cultures and religions, which have on occasion clashed. But while each group may have its own goals, all “have a common interest in the preservation of the territorial integrity [of the country] and the maintenance of national uniqueness.”
And he continued that “it is especially sad that Russia and Georgia, two Orthodox countries,” find themselves embroiled in a military and political conflict that threatens those values. But Iliya added, a Russian move to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have far greater consequences than that.
It would, he argued, lead to more separatism around the world. “Separatism is a terrible force, which destroys the foundations of states, and if it is given the chance to develop, chaos will dominate the world.” There are “small peoples in all states,” he continued, “and if they all want political independence, wars without end will begin.”
And he concluded, recognizing these two breakaway regions would be “extremely dangerous for Russia itself, giving an impulse to the development of separatism in your country, and in the future, you will have many more problems than there are in Georgia. That is something that ought to be considered.”
Unfortunately, neither Dmitry Medvedev nor Vladimir Putin took the warnings of the Georgian church leader seriously and went ahead with recognition. But as they were doing so, the Moscow Patriarchate, clearly aware of the dangers this step represents for the Russian church, took a number of steps to try to calm the situation.
First of all, Russian Patriarch Aleksii II sent greetings to Iliya II on the 45th anniversary of the latter’s entering the priesthood (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=22365). Then, it had one of its theologians announce that the fate of Orthodox churches in Abkhazia would depend exclusively on parish members (www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=178215).
And finally, today, the Moscow church announced that it was continuing conversations with the Georgian church, conversations that Archbishop Feofan of Stavropol and Vladikavkaz, the Moscow patriarchate’s man in the Caucasus, said would be based “not on political norms but on church laws” (www.blagovest-info.ru/index.php?ss=2&s=3&id=22379).
But few in the Georgian church and even fewer religious leaders in Ukraine are likely to accept that line, especially given some of the radical nationalist Orthodox commentary in Moscow (For an example of its argument and tone, see Vladimir Semenko, “The Church, the Empire and ‘The Nationalities Question’” at www.rusk.ru/st.php?idar=105417).
As a result, the Moscow Patriarchate faces an uphill task to avoid suffering any more collateral damage from what the Kremlin has done in Georgia than it has experienced over the last several weeks.
UPDATE for August 28: Ukrainians want a single national Orthodox Church independent of Moscow, polls show (ura-inform.com/ru/society/2008/08/27/hram/), and Russian actions in Georgia may boost their chances of organizing one soon. In an effort to justify the transfer control of Orthodox parishes in Abkhazia from Tbilisi to Moscow, an Orthodox leader in that breakaway republic insists that Orthodox cannon law requires that the church be administratively divied along state borders (www.portal-credo.ru/site/?act=authority&id=1028).