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Why did they do that?

By Messenger staff
Tuesday, November 18
The Russian Orthodox Church has not followed the lead of the Russian state. It has refused to recognize the ‘religious independence’ of the Sokhumi and Tskhinvali separatist regimes. The eparchies of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will remain part of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and will neither be incorporated into the Russian Orthodox or declared autocephalous or autonomous ecclesiastical jurisdictions.

This is an unusual step, and in a way sensational. It has been reported that the Kremlin leadership is angry with the Church for failing to follow Government policy. At first glance it does appear to be a victory by Georgia over Russia. However some commentators are suggesting less positive answers to the question, why did they do it?

The Russian Church would have lost more than it could have gained if it had recognized the political annexation of these territories, it is said. In reality, Georgian Orthodox Church jurisdiction does not run in the territories occupied by the Russian armed forces. Georgian clergy has been forced out, as have their parishes and the entire Georgian population. Russian priests conduct the services there in the Russian language and in practice the Moscow Patriarchate’s rules are valid there. The Moscow Patriarchate has already been controlling Georgian ecclesiastical territory in secessionist Abkhazia and South Ossetia quite “successfully” for more than fifteen years, and has got away with this canonical misconduct so far. Formally accepting the parishes into its jurisdiction would only bring this practice into the open, and possibly weaken its control over these areas.

There are other reasons being suggested too. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union all the Orthodox parishes in the rest of the post-Soviet area have been made part of the Moscow Patriarchate, regardless of any national political boundaries. The only post-Soviet country which has an autocephalous Church of its own is Georgia. If the Russian Church recognizes the separatist churches and accepts them under its protection it will undermine its own position, as its claims to its existing canonical boundaries will be diminished if it violates the boundaries of a fellow Orthodox Church whose autocephaly is acknowledged the world over. The Moscow Patriarchate has much to lose by taking this action. At present the Ukrainian Church is trying to separate itself from Moscow, and if parts of the Georgian Church are allowed to unilaterally separate, Kiev will follow suit.

The negative wider Church reaction to any Russian Church annexation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia has determined the decision of the Moscow Patriarchal Synod. This decision has, in all probability, also been endorsed by the Kremlin, despite its fake rage, as such a public relations coup suits its own purposes. On one hand it demonstrates the “independence” of Church and State, on the other it shows how “democratic” Russia is. It is also being suggested in Georgia that the Church is being used as a means of conducting negotiations by proxy. The Churches can talk to each other about the issue first, on behalf of their respective Governments, and when the Churches have made the situation safe the politicians will blithely take over.

Any attempt of channel confrontation into civilized dialogue should be welcomed. But this welcome should not be accompanied by primitive illusions that the Russian Church or its state sponsor care about Georgia’s problems, or supports Georgia in any way. The Russian Orthodox Church’s acknowledgment that the parishes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are still part of the Georgian Church is not a victory for this country. The Russian Church is acting to suit itself, as a winner always does to show that he is superior, and cannot therefore be forced to care about a loser’s opinion.