Monday, September 08, 2008

War splits Orthodox churches in Georgia and Russia

The Herald Tribune has a story about how the Orthodox Church in Georgia and Russia has been physically divided by the conflict. Leaders in both national churches have spoken out against the conflict and attempted to offer relief to affected civilians. They have expressed sorrow that Orthodox Christians are killing each other.

The Georgia conflict marks the first war between countries with majority Orthodox Christian populations since the Second Balkan War in 1913 pitted Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Romania against Bulgaria in a prelude to World War I.

Priests and others close to the Orthodox churches, studying their role in post-Soviet society, have voiced anxiety that, while religion has recovered its stature, calls to prayer could not avert bloodshed between two peoples who share Orthodoxy, and centuries of deep cultural, political, economic and social ties.

"What these events show is the collapse of the myth of unity of Orthodox peoples and the collapse of the myth of the supreme peacemaking ability of Orthodox civilization," said Anatoly Krasikov, director of the Center for Religious and Social Studies of the Institute of Europe in Moscow.

"Of course it is not Orthodoxy that is to blame for this collapse, but concrete people, functionaries of the church administrative structures of Russian and Georgian Orthodoxy. They, for all practical purposes, remained aloof and did nothing to end a war that was unjust from all sides."

Russia has the world's largest Orthodox Christian population, with an estimated 75 percent of its over 140 million people identifying themselves as Orthodox (although only 10 percent are regular churchgoers), according to a poll last year by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center. The Moscow Patriarchate is vying with the smaller Patriarchate of Constantinople for predominance in the Orthodox world.

Georgia has fewer than five million people, but is one of the most ancient Christian countries in the world. Its church dates back to the fourth century, far outpacing the Russian church, which dates its founding to the Baptism of Rus in 988, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev brought Orthodoxy to the banks of the Dnieper River.

Russia annexed Georgia, which was seeking protection from Persia, in 1801, absorbed its church and abolished its Patriarchate, which was restored - in name, at least - only after the Bolsheviks came to power.

In Soviet times, Georgia became something of a refuge for persecuted Orthodox monks from Russia, said Nikolai Mitrokhin, a specialist on the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet Union. From Czarist times through the Soviet era, Georgian clergy trained in Russia and Kiev.

"For Georgia, Russia is this love-hate relationship," said Tamara Grdzelidze, an Oxford-trained theologian from Georgia who works at the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva and has edited an English-language history of the Orthodox Church of Georgia.

"Our patriarch was educated in Russia, and this is the best he knows and he respects it highly," she added. "This is a very complicated and long history of relationship between the churches. When Russia annexed Georgia in the beginning of the 19th century, it abolished the king, it abolished the patriarch in 1811, it persecuted the Georgian language at all levels, including the church."

The latest conflict has stirred those memories on both sides, rankling each.

Last week, Patriarch Ilia appealed to Medvedev and Putin to end the confrontation and not to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "This will give rise to separatism in your country, and in the future you will have many more problems than we have in Georgia today," he said, according to the Interfax news agency. "This is worth meditating upon."

There are deep historical and cultural factors in this conflict that predate Russia's resurgent nationalism. I do not pretend to understand them, but I urge readers to be aware.

Either way, it is a sorrowful thing when God's people, whatever creed they follow, kill one another. Pray for peace.

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