Tbilisi, January 15, 2021
According to media reports, a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church celebrated the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ on January 7 in the city of Tskhinvali, the capital of the disputed Republic of South Ossetia, which is recognized as the ecclesiastical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
On Wednesday, January 13, His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasime of Zugdidi and Tsaishi, the Chairman of the Georgian Patriarchate’s Foreign Affairs Department, addressed a letter to the Russian Church’s Department for External Church Relations condemning the service that was held without the blessing of the Georgian Church, reports civil.ge.
In his letter, published on the Georgian Church Department’s Facebook page and addressed to Metropolitans Hilarion of Volokolamsk and Leonid of Vladikavkaz and Alan, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Russian DECR, Met. Gerasime refers to reports from Sputnik-Ossetia that a Russian priest of Met. Leonid’s diocese served Liturgy at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tskhinvali on January 7.
Sputnik names the priest as Fr. Jacob (Khetagurov), though Met. Gerasime refers to a Fr. Sergei Kokoev.
In any case, Met. Gerasime stresses that the Diocese of Tskhinvali and Nikozi belongs to the Georgian Orthodox Church, as recognized by all Orthodox Churches, including the Russian Church, and thus, “According to ecclesiastical law, it is unacceptable for any religious service to be conducted by the clergy of other Orthodox Churches without the permission of the Georgian Orthodox Church.”
He therefore calls for the Russian Church to investigate the matter, to take strict measures against Fr. Sergei, and to ensure that similar incidents will not occur anymore.
This is not the first time in recent memory that the Georgian Church has raised such issues with the Russian Church. In late November 2019, the Georgian Church also expressed its concern about the Russian Church sending chaplains to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway republics that remain ecclesiastically within the territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church, as His Holiness Patriarch Kirill explicitly stated during a meeting with His Holiness Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia in 2011.
The situation is complicated by the fact that the breakaway republics do not allow the Georgian Church to effectively minister in these areas, leaving local Orthodox Christians, including Russian military members, without spiritual care, and by the fact that a schismatic Abkhazian church has been active for many years.
Additionally, in June of this past year, Met. Gerasime addressed a letter of displeasure to His Eminence Metropolitan John of Dubna of the Archdiocese of Russian Churches of Western Europe, following media reports that the Archdiocese planned to open a Georgian-language parish in Paris.
However, Met. John quickly clarified that the media reports were false and that the Archdiocese has no plans of opening a Georgian-language parish.
“We also assure our Georgian brothers … that we never intended to create such a community, because we know that there is a parish of the Georgian tradition in Paris, whose rector is the Reverend Archimandrite Anthony (Kandelaki),” he wrote.
It remains to be seen how Met. Hilarion of the Russian DECR will respond to Met. Gerasime’s recent letter and whether the media reports about the service in South Ossetia were accurate.
It is known that the Georgian Church has been the target of increasing political pressure and schismatic propaganda recently in an effort to force the Georgian Church to recognize the so-called “Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” There are at least a handful of Georgian bishops who have publicly expressed their support for the OCU, while its head, “Metropolitan” Epiphany Dumenko, recently declared that the Georgian Church is ready to recognize the OCU—a clear indication that Constantinople and America’s “diplomacy” is at work in the Caucasian country.
Against this background, the Russian Church cannot afford to harm its relations with the Georgian Church.