The Georgian Orthodox Church is having an eventful year: priests have been dispensing blessings from a helicopter, visiting the US State Department and debating a poison conspiracy. Most notably, Patriarch Ilia II, the aging Church leader and Georgia’s most beloved public figure, has appointed a standby amidst a growing rivalry for his succession.
But odd things first. A few weeks ago, several priests went whizzing around in a state border-police helicopter, dispensing blessings and candies from the sky. The airborne priests whirled above Georgia’s eastern Kvareli region in what appeared to be an unauthorized trip. It later transpired that local priests occasionally go for such rides to ward off evil.
“We sometimes fly around with icons; not too often, though,” Sergi, the metropolitan of Nekresi, told Netgazeti.ge. “Going around with icons is done to protect the diocese. In times of war, an icon was carried around Moscow and the enemy failed to enter,” he observed, referring to a disputed World War II story about a Virgin Mary icon being flown around the Soviet capital.
Before taking to the skies, the clergy perhaps should have done a bit of in-house exorcism. The Church is still recovering from a poisoning scandal, an incredibly gothic affair featuring props like cyanide, a curse and even a voodoo doll.
The flying priests may have had the good intention to help the border police fend off Georgia’s enemies, but the journey did not end well. One unnamed border official has been dismissed for taking the clerics on their ride.
The holy flight also prompted criticism that the Church, by far the country’s most respected institution, is allowed to bend the rules too often.
Craving its influential blessing, a succession of administrations and parliaments has bestowed the Church with endowments, properties and legal privilege. All this, critics charge, places the church on a high pedestal, largely above public scrutiny.
The arrest and conviction of a senior prelate for attempting to poison the influential secretary of Patriarch Ilia II was a rare case of Georgia bringing a Church official to trial, much less prison. It also brought into the open muffled turf wars inside the Church.
The power struggles entered a new stage last week when Patriarch Ilia II, who has headed the Church since 1977, announced a stand-in Church leader, a perceived heir apparent. The surprise decision prompted speculation that the ailing, 84-year-old Ilia II is too frail to lead the divided institution.
The task to function as an acting patriarch was assigned to the 48-year-old Metropolitan Shio Mujiri, whose jurisdiction covers bits of the western Georgian region of Samegrelo as well as Australia and New Zealand.
If the current patriarch steps down or passes away, it falls on Mujiri to convene an extended ecclesiastic council, an Eastern Orthodox version of a papal conclave, to elect the Church's new supreme leader. A patriarchal locum tenens often becomes the patriarch's successor and many believe that’s what Ilia II has in mind for Mujiri.
As such, all eyes are now on the metropolitan, with media and analysts trying to predict his take on Georgia’s current issues; not least on Georgia’s competing ties with Russia and the West.
Their shared Orthodox Christian faith and values are the one strong link between Georgia and Russia. Some political analysts consider that a potential impediment to Georgia’s European-integration plans.
The two main Western clubs that Georgia hopes to join, NATO and the European Union, have been trying to get the church on its side. NATO and EU officials both played host to senior Georgian Orthodox Church clergy in Brussels this and last year. Georgian robes, beards and caps were also sighted this week in Washington, DC, where the patriarchate’s delegates met State Department officials.
Much attention is now paid to the fact that Mujiri, who has long maintained a low profile, was educated in Moscow and led a Georgian parish there.
It is not a fait accompli that he is going to be the next patriarch, however. That several high-ranking prelates and potential patriarch candidates questioned his appointment indicates that the game for the patriarchal throne is far from over.