Video footage posted last week on Georgian websites and on YouTube showing Georgian Patriarch Ilia II with a voiceover of insulting comments about Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has triggered a storm of criticism
from the Georgian authorities, opposition parties, and the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Some NGOs suspect the Georgian authorities released the video in a bid to discredit Ilia, who last week implicitly criticized Saakashvili for precipitating the war with Russia in August 2008. Ilia said that war could and should have been avoided.
The 42-second video clip was first uploaded on YouTube on October 13; Tea Tutberidze of the NGO Liberty Institute then posted it on Facebook. Tutberidze subsequently explained
that she did so because she considered Ilia's remarks detrimental to the Georgian state.
Tutberidze also said she fears that Russia seeks to use the Georgian Orthodox Church to exert pressure on the Georgian leadership, and to co-opt the patriarch personally. She argued that "when a tumor develops on an organ of the body, it should be surgically removed rather than treated with painkillers in the hope that it will disappear."
This was not the first time Tutberidze has criticized the patriarchy. In March 2007, she spoke out against its plans to launch its own television and radio channels. Few Georgians appear to take Tutberidze's apprehensions seriously, however. On the contrary, the presidential administration and opposition parliament deputies alike have denounced the montage as "loathsome," "unacceptable," and "unethical."
The patriarchate press office released a statement
condemning the circulation of the video clip as part of a campaign to discredit the Georgian Orthodox Church and to "destroy the foundations of our statehood." For his part, Saakashvili on October 21affirmed his support and respect for Ilia. An NGO named Movement in Defense of Our Honor was established the same day with the express aim of protecting Ilia's reputation.
Now 76, Ilia has occupied the post of patriarch for over three decades. He was born in Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, and entered the Moscow Theological Seminary in 1952 --one year before Stalin died.
On completing his religious education, he returned to Georgia in 1960 and was consecrated in 1963 as bishop of Batumi, then in 1967 as bishop of Tskhumi and Abkhazia. He was elected patriarch in December 1977 in the wake of a scandal triggered by the circulation of samizdat documents chronicling alleged corruption and homosexuality among the Georgian clergy.
Ilia formed an informal alliance in the late 1980s with nationalist leader and future President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, one of the anonymous authors of those samizdat denunciations, and tried unsuccessfully to avert the massacre of Georgian protesters by Soviet troops in Tbilisi on April 9, 1989.
Since Georgia regained its independence in 1991 following the demise of the USSR, Ilia has consistently affirmed the supremacy in Georgia of the Georgian Orthodox Church and denounced other religious sects as "unbelievers out to undermine its authority."
He has also consistently supported Saakashvili's concerted efforts to restore Georgia's territorial integrity. Consecrating the new national flag in January 2004, on the eve of Saakashvili's inauguration as president, Ilia vowed that "the territorial integrity of Georgia will be soon restored under the new national flag.... We will soon enter Sukhumi and Tskhinvali under this flag. This flag will unite the whole of Georgia."
Over the past two years, however, since the Georgian opposition protests against Saakashvili began in the fall of 2007, Ilia had distanced himself slightly from the Saakashvili leadership, calling for dialogue between the authorities and opposition parties, and urging police not to take action against fellow Georgians who stage protests against the Saakashvili regime.
And at a meeting on October 13 with representatives of the independent teachers' trade union, he implicitly criticized Saakashvili for precipitating the war with Russia in August 2008 that ended with Russia's formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
"This should not have happened and need not have happened," he said. "We had other ways of resolving those problems." When a ship is sailing on the open sea, the captain should know where the rocks are so the ship is not dashed against them and damaged, as Georgia has been, he continued.
Ilia met in December 2008 in Moscow with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and said
on his return to Tbilisi that they reached "quite positive and good agreements" that, however, require "careful and diplomatic follow-up."
In recent months, however, Medvedev has made increasingly clear that while Russia seeks good relations with Georgia, he personally will refrain from any contacts with Saakashvili, as he believes the latter "has committed crimes both against his own people and against the peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia."
-- Koba Liklikadze and Liz Fuller