First there was the priest sentenced for allegedly plotting to poison a top church official. Then there was the other priest who alleged that Georgia’s prime minister and a billionaire businessman wanted to kill the church’s revered spiritual leader.
Oh, and don’t forget the priest who nearly got into a fight with clergymen and who, after being forcibly thrown out of an extraordinary meeting, accused the church’s leader on live TV of being “possessed by the sin of pederasty and sodomy.”
It’s high drama and low politics in the Georgian Orthodox Church these days, experts say.
“What is going on now is what I would call the biggest scandal in the history of the Georgian church,” Mirian Gamrekelashvili, a Munich-based academic, told RFE/RL.
In the small South Caucasus nation, the Orthodox Church has long played an outsized role not only in society, but also the country’s political life.
The renewal the Georgian church has seen since the Soviet collapse is due in large part to its longtime leader, Patriarch Ilia II, an 86-year-old cleric who has headed the church since 1977, nearly 15 years before the Soviet collapse. With more than 80 percent of Georgia’s 3.7 million people calling themselves Orthodox Christians, that gives Ilia wide influence.
The political intrigue that has been simmering for several years has focused in part on longstanding accusations of corruption, and the vast wealth that the church has amassed with little transparency or oversight.
That simmering intrigue boiled over two weeks ago, with an incendiary public accusation from one of the church’s top clerics, Archbishop Yakob Yakobishvili.
In a phone call October 26 to the TV news channel Pirveli, Yakobishvili charged that Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia had plotted to assassinate Ilia.
Yakobishvili asserted the authorities were trying to involve him to force Ilia to resign, but then decided the best option would be instead to murder him. He also alleged that Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman who has had wide influence over Georgian politics for years, of secretly funding the plan.
Gakharia called the accusations “stupid” and said that such a meeting had never been held either in his office or elsewhere.
“Those unable to control their ego put our present and future at great risk,” Gakharia said in a statement posted to his Facebook page on October 31. “This is absolutely unacceptable and I am sure every citizen will stand by the side of our patriarch today.”
In the phone call, Yakobishvili said the plot was discussed during a meeting that he attended in 2016 at the government offices of then-Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, along with a top security agency director and Gakharia, who at the time oversaw business and economic affairs for the government.
While some dismissed the comments as wild-eyed and baseless, he repeated them in subsequent interviews.
Kvirikashvili denied the allegations.
Yakobishvili also asserted that during the 2016 meeting, government authorities decided that Ilia’s successor -- or his replacement if he became incapacitated -- would be another cleric, Archbishop Shio Mujiri.
Mujiri was chosen, Yakobishvili charged, because of his proximity to the Russian Orthodox Church and his ties with Russia -- an explosive allegation for many Georgians who harbor deep enmity toward Moscow since the 2008 war.
Ivanishvili, who is the leader of the ruling Georgian Dream party and a former prime minister, also made no comment.
But he met with Ilia on November 3, after which Ilia’s office issued a statement saying the two men discussed “the recent events that led to irresponsible accusations against the patriarch and caused great anxiety among the public.”
“Such mindless acts are not solely an attack on the church, but are directed against the state in general,” the statement said.
Yakobishvili’s accusations renewed scrutiny on the murky arrest and prosecution of another priest in 2017 -- a case that transfixed Georgians.
In that case, Archpriest Giorgia Mamaladze was arrested at Tbilisi International Airport, and authorities said later that cyanide was found in his baggage as he sought to board a flight to Berlin. Prosecutors also said they found unregistered guns and ammunition at his home. At the time, Ilia had been hospitalized in Germany for an unspecified condition.
Mamaladze served as chief of the church’s property department, overseeing hundreds of church parishes, other assets, and real-estate holdings
Prosecutors initially alleged that Mamaladze was plotting to kill Ilia; days after their initial allegations, however, authorities switched their story and alleged that it was Ilia’s personal secretary, Shorena Tetruashvili, who was the target of the alleged plot.
Mamaladze was found guilty by a Tbilisi court in September 2017 and sentenced to 9 years in prison.
Days after Mamaladze’s arrest, the Georgian TV channel Rustavi 2 published a letter purportedly written by Mamaladze and addressed to Ilia. In it, he accused church leaders of overseeing an immense network of graft, corruption, and illegal property acquisition.
The letter was never independently verified. Church leaders denied the accusations.
According to Gamrekelashvili, whose academic studies have focused on the history and structure of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Mamaladze was considered to be a close ally of Ilia.
Later, Mamaladze reportedly confided to friends and relatives who met him in prison that he believed it was actually Ilia’s secretary, Tetruashvili, who had asked him to purchase the cyanide.
Yakobishvili’s accusations prompted the church’s ruling council, the Holy Synod, to call an extraordinary meeting of its 47 leaders, for the first time in nearly a year.
At the gathering, which began October 31, church leaders unanimously voted to petition President Salome Zurabishvili to pardon Mamaladze, given what they said was his poor health and family situation.
“Today we are gathered here not to punish anyone, but to help each other,” Ilia said during the October 31 session.
“We should not burden each other with burdens, but we must lighten them. Even though I was repeatedly burdened by the cross, I never thought of punishing anyone. I always think only of your help,” he said.
Zurabishvili said she would consider the pardon request, but not until the new guidelines on handling such pardons were finalized.
And that was the least of the drama to come up in the Synod meeting.
Church officials voted also to expel an outspoken renegade clergyman, Metropolitan Petre Tsaava.
Tsaava had been a thorn in the side of the church for years. He had clashed with the leadership in the past for, among other things, his management of the official church TV channel and, according to Gamrekelashvili, regularly spoke about corruption within the church, including allegations of vast wealth amassed by Ilia.
Tsaava also publicly supported Mamaladze’s earlier claims that Ilia’s secretary was behind the cyanide plot.
At the Synod meeting, during the discussion about what to do with Tsaava, clergymen began yelling and shouting, and the meeting nearly devolved into fighting, participants later told reporters.
One priest, Archbishop Nikoloz Pachuashvili, told RFE/RL’s Georgian Service that some priests had to physically protect Ilia from others.
Tsaava, Pachuashvili said, had to be escorted from the meeting by force.
Tsaava was not stripped of his priesthood, but he was ordered to serve part of his punishment in a monastery. And he was threatened with excommunication from the church if he continued to speak out.
Following the church’s decision to expel him, Tsaava then made an explosive accusation, broadcast live on Georgian TV.
“Today, the Holy Synod made an unprecedented decision and personally, the patriarch, the chairman of the Synod, I believe that he made an unjust decision in depriving me of the rank,” Tsaava said. “I think that this is because I uncovered the sin of sodomy and pederasty in the Georgian Orthodox Church.”
“The people have a patriarch, possessed by the sin of pederasty and sodomy, the chairman of the Synod,” he told.
Gamrekelashvili said Tsaava’s accusations stunned Georgian society, which is overwhelming conservative and largely views homosexuality as deeply offensive and sinful -- a position the church has promulgated.
He likened Tsaava’s statement to the 95 Theses that were published by the 16th century Roman Catholic theologian Martin Luther -- a list that shook the Catholic Church and led to the Protestant Reformation.
Gamrekelashvili also said the church’s vast business holdings are an open secret for many Georgians. And much of its revenues also derive directly from contributions from the state budget -- with little to no oversight or accountability, he said.
“The church is a black economy, it’s rife with corruption,” he said. “It’s a medieval economic model.”