Fr Vassily Kobahidze Interview

From the Bulletin of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations, Moscow Patriarchate, 1 August 1997:

Turmoil in the Georgian Orthodox Church: Origins and Repercussions

Interview of the Information Correspondent of the Moscow Patriarchate’s Department for External Church Relations (DECR) with Fr Vassily Kobahidze, head of the Press Office of the Georgian Patriarchate, Press Secretary of the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, concerning the contemporary situation in the Georgian Orthodox Church.

19th July, 1997, at the Church of the Great Martyr Catherine, Moscow.

DECR: Fr Vassily, please tell us the origin of the processes which are currently threatening a schism in the Georgian Church.

Fr. Kobahidze: First of all, I would like to point out that our church is a very small one, and when five monasteries leave it in a schism, it has very painful repercussions for the faithful and for the people in the Church. We ourselves are at fault that we did not pay enough attention to the anti-ecumenical propaganda which for decades has been circulated in our church. Original articles as well as translations from Greek and other schismatics have been distributed as if they were official materials of Orthodox clergy. Schismatic newspapers and journals were also distributed, and all of this literature was presenting itself to the unsuspecting faithful as the opinion of Greek, Romanian or Russian Orthodox clerics or theologians. For a long time a certain portion of the Georgian clergy was involved in a similar kind of propaganda defaming the episcopate. It was being asserted that we would soon see the departure of the episcopate from the faith, and that these are bishops who are “not exactly Orthodox in spirit.” This undermined the ecclesiological consciousness of faithful and their faith in their pastors. Then, translations were made and distributed of books, for example books of the Bulgarian schismatic archimandrites Seraphim and Alexei, such as “Why an Orthodox Christian Cannot Be an Ecumenist.” These were published in the Georgian language three years ago, and it made a large impression on the faithful. This is so particularly because we have scarcely any theological literature in the Georgian language, but funds were found in order to print books such as this.

So on 17th May of this year five monasteries presented an open letter to the All-Holy and Most-Blessed Catholicos-Patriarch, informing him that they are severing eucharistic communion with him and the Georgian Church, because we have participated in the ecumenical movement, and were members of the WCC and the CEC. They found our Patriarch guilty of not confessing the 9th article of the symbol of faith “I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.” This was accompanied by articles full of falsehoods and demagoguery in which it was asserted that the ecumenical movement is a heresy, on a par with the Jehovist sect, and that participation in the ecumenical movement is an ecclesiological heresy.

Already after this we began to try to explain to the people that the ecumenical movement is not monolithic, not one-sided. We referred to the Toronto Statement, where it is written that the ecumenical movement does not present any one doctrine of the Church, that the decisions or policies of the WCC have no authority on its members if they disagree with them. We pointed out that this organization, which is really an instrument for the churches, is simply a forum for theological discussion and also cooperative help in Christian service, but most of the people were already taken in by the anti-ecumenical propaganda.Recent events have clearly shown that [for the anti-ecumenical groups] the ecumenical movement was only a vehicle, that their real goal was the removal of the Catholicos-Patriarch from the Patriarchal throne, or if this did not succeed, the establishment of their own schismatic church. Their articles are full of terminology such as “the official church” and “the church in resistance,” which is of course Greek Old-Calendarist terminology.

The main ideologue of this group is Archimandrite Ioan (Sheklashvilli) who was transferred to the monastery of Shio-Mgvimsk. Monasteries participating in the establishment of this schism were the those of Betansk, Shio-Mgvimsk, David-Garedzh, and Shemokmedsk, together with their monks and superiors. Only one monk, the Hieromonk Naum, who lives in the David Garedzh Monastery, did not participate in the first stages of the schism. These are all solid and ancient monasteries which played an important role in our history and our society, and they carry great authority among our faithful. The problem is that although it was only the monasteries who originally put forth the schismatic process, a portion of the married clergy of Tbilisi, as well as some of the clergy of two dioceses, were also ready to join in this schism. The laity of one diocese wrote that if a decision is not taken as to the withdrawal from ecumenical organizations, then they would also go into schism.

Political forces have supported and continue to support and finance these people. Among these political forces are those who support our former President Gamsahudri. On 20th May the building which houses our Patriarchate was surrounded by armed forces. And in order to avoid a tearing of the fabric of the Church, which would have grown into a rift in the society, and would have fostered a destabilization in the government and possibly even bloodshed, the Catholicos-Patriarch Ilya II and his Holy Synod were forced to take the decision to withdraw from the ecumenical movement, the WCC and CEC.

DECR: Some of our [Russian] secular and church newspapers have taken the withdrawal of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the WCC and CEC as “an Orthodox endeavor” and have invited others including our own [Russian Orthodox] Church to follow their example. What do you think about this?

Fr. Kobahidze: This is common press misinformation. Do you really think the events I was describing were an Orthodox endeavor? It is the endeavor of schismatics. But it can be said that we have become hostages to our own decision, as has been shown by the second stage of the schism, wherein they openly entered into relationship with the Greek Old Calendarists, in specific with Cyprian and Chrysostom. Archimandrite John sent his “fellow-soldier,” the superior of the David-Gorodzh Monastery, Archimandrite Gregory (Gubahidze) to Chrysostom in order to gain for him “the episcopate.” They let me know as an official person that they want to initiate another “church” with its own “bishop.” They promised that “they would not lure in our parishioners.” Archimandrite John also came to Moscow, as we have heard, and met with representatives of the Karlovtsy schism [Russian Orthodox Church Abroad]. In his “open letter to the Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church” he demanded that they break eucharistic communion with all Orthodox Churches including the Moscow Patriarchate.

This was accompanied by some very interesting factors. The independent press did not support us, it supported the schismatics. Certain representatives of the intelligentsia came forward and said that Orthodoxy is fascism and fundamentalism, just like here in Russia people came with dirty articles saying we are selling beer and cigarettes. Then came articles which tried to sully the names of representatives of other Orthodox churches in the 20th century (the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Patriarch of Romania and His All-Holiness Alexy II). In this way the opinion of society was being shaped: ‘Look at the type of people who head the official Orthodox churches, so better let us leave into the schismatic and international Synod, joining others such as Vlassy from Romania, Pimen and Photios from Bulgaria, and the Greeks Andrew, Cyprian and Chrysostom.’ Philaret Denisenko also put his hand into this matter. A month ago he “consecrated” a certain Georgian priest as a “bishop”. This man came to Georgia, but not having found anyone to share his opinion, he came back and repented.

After these open letters and articles, parishes started to be gained and seized by these schismatics.

DECR: In what way has this seizure been taking place?

Fr. Kobahidze: Seizure has been taking place in the following way. I will speak, for example, of the Betansk Monastery. The Patriarchate received information that three Orthodox priests who were sent to the Monastery two days earlier were finding themselves in a very difficult situation. At this point four bishops came to discipline them, headed by Archbishop Daniel of Souhumsk. They saw these three priests at the walls of the ancient Betansky Church, surrounded by schismatic monks and militants from political organizations ready to start beating the priests. As soon as the bishops came, about 50 young hooligans showed up in cars and started to deride our bishops both physically and with words — I will not repeat their words — and tear their vestments. At this point they forced out the Orthodox abbot, Higoumen Veniamin, and the bishops from the monastery, and said to call the police because they were planning to set up a demonstration.

The previous day, the schismatics and youths seized the Zarzmsk Monastery in southern Georgia. They informed its superior, Abbot Ioan, “we will renounce you if you return here.” Earlier when the Greek pseudo-bishop Ambrosius (from the group of the “Metropolitan” Cyprian) arrived in Georgia, he sought to seize the Church of Saint George, established in one of the new districts of Tbilisi.

After all that had taken place, the Patriarch addressed himself with a call to the nation and unmasked the schism and expressed the hope that fanaticism and fundamentalism will not take root in the people of the Church. Afterward there was a meeting of the clergy of the Tbilisi diocese which expressed its support for the Patriarch. The All-Holy Patriarch Ilia II proclaimed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as days of fasting, and that on Thursday a Divine Liturgy, with intense prayer for the souls of these schismatics, would be served, so that the Lord would save them and would take them away from wiles of the devil.

I would like to add one thing: there are many clergy, who are not entirely well-balanced, and who will easily say that this is black and this is white, that this is Orthodoxy and this is not Orthodoxy, ecumenism is a heresy, etc. It is this kind of people who are establishing a fundamentalistic world-view in the Church, a world-view which promotes schism. It is precisely our clergy which brought forth the schismatics. Of course, now they are verbally disassociating themselves from the schism, but the schism is a result of their “spiritual” efforts that had been taking place for many years. This dark world-view, I am afraid, is continually gaining strength and it is surely the task of us all who are ordained clergy to take a stand against it.

DECR: In your opinion how is the situation in Georgia going to proceed?

Fr. Kobahidze: If we look at other autocephalous churches, each one has its schismatic pseudo-bishops. So far we do not have any, but I imagine that Georgia too will go into that direction: one of them will proclaim himself a bishop (of course, the episcopal grace will not be with such people) and from this will begin a fearful and painful process. They will either build or seize churches, and in this way a structure, a little group will have formed itself.

DECR: What is the content of the open letter of Archimandrite Ioan Sheklashvilli to the Holy Synod?

Fr. Kobahidze: He asserts that withdrawal from the WCC and from CEC was merely a tactical move of the Synod, that the Synod is deceiving the faithful and has only verbally withdrawn from the ecumenical movement. But he writes to the Holy Synod, ‘You all know that heretics always come to repent in their heresy. Therefore you must repent openly before the people in that you were members of the ecumenical movement, and you must also acknowledge as heretical all the autocephalous churches including the Church of Jerusalem.’ (The fact is that until this time many were were saying deceptively that the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem does not participate in the ecumenical movement, but then it became clear that it simply does not send its representatives to ecumenical meetings).

Archimandrite Ioan continues to say that all the local Orthodox churches are “heretical altars” and we must break eucharistic communion with them. If not, then he himself breaks eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate and the Synod. And here he brings in a canonical anomaly, for he says: “I break communion only with the Synod and the Patriarch, but not with the Georgian Church. No, I remain in the fold of the Georgian Church.” But how can a person break eucharistic prayerful canonical communion with the episcopate, with the chief representative of the Church and stay in the Church? Which Church is he staying with?

This is the first portion of the letter. The second portion is sheer plagiarism from the book of the Bulgarian schismatic Archimandrite Alexei Seraphim, and here a very simple demagogical method is used. He takes opinions of various Protestants, modernists, etc. and applies them to the Orthodox Church and then brings in sayings of the Holy Fathers which stand out against the Protestant views. In this way he lures in the innocent reader. For example, he brings in the words of a certain Korean woman as if our Patriarch Ilya II were saying these words, as if the Russian Orthodox or some other Orthodox Church had ever subscribed to this ecclesiological heresy.

In addition I want to turn your attention to the fact that he spreads rumors about the Antiochian Patriarchate and the American autocephalous Church to say that they have eucharistic communion with heretics.

In Greece and Russia a lot of such literature exists. I have seen here in Moscow in church book stands “The Lie of Ecumenism” “What is Ecumenism?”, etc. Our situation in Georgia is a lesson, indicating that a grave danger exists. Young monks who have barely even finished seminary see themselves as St Mark of Ephesus and Athanasius the Great, and they yell hysterically and deride the bishops. They tell the bishops “if you are Orthodox, come to us and come under our sign”. It is possible that I am wrong, but in my opinion about 70% of the faithful to one degree or another are infected with schismatic ideology. When we left the ecumenical movement, there were many articles that this was an Orthodox endeavor, that the Church is straightening its own path. How did this straighten the path? Does this mean that our Church was heretical? The schismatics began then to prevaricate that since the 20th of May, when we left the ecumenical movement, a holy flame appeared on the tomb of the Lord just as at Easter. They were saying that the monasteries of Mount Athos sent up white flags as a sign of the great festival, but this is also a lie. In fact, at that very time I myself was on Mount Athos. They were very much helped by the so-called “independent journalists” and newspapers who, it seems, were reporting somebody’s stories and were blaming personally the Catholics-Patriarch. I do not know whether there is any other country where one’s own Patriarch was being scorned in the press as in our country.

DECR: In Russia today there are many publications which criticize Patriarch Alexy and members of our Holy Synod. As you have noticed yourself, we have a huge amount of literature in which ecumenism is called a heresy. There are several priests and lay people who are calling us to withdraw from the WCC and from CEC, and yet we see that while your Church has withdrawn from the WCC it has not avoided schism.

Fr. Kobahidze: Ecumenism is just a vehicle. The real goal of these people is not the purity of Orthodoxy. The goal of these people is the satisfaction of their own ambitions. Today they have seized upon ecumenism, tomorrow it will be some other vehicle. The Church must proclaim dogmatically that the ecumenical movement is not a heresy, our dogmatic position has to be clear. This is not a heresy but a good and pious task. Why should you or we withdraw from the ecumenical movement? Is not a schism a wound on the body of the Church? The schismatic elements simply need an excuse in order to begin their schismatic work, and I am afraid that our post-communist society presents itself as very fertile ground for such ideas. The schismatics quickly attracted a lot of adherents, but in order to arrive at a normal and true Orthodox position, it is necessary to think, and thinking is very hard. I am sure that concessions to the schismatics only strengthens their positions.

Our Patriarch took a very active participation in the ecumenical movement. For this reason they present the ecumenical movement as a heresy. They represent him as heretic and as a person who consecrated a large portion of his life to a heretical task.

And the same goes for the heads of other local Orthodox churches. Please forgive me for this, but we even had an article in which they tried to stir up muck against Patriarch Alexy, noting that he has the surname Ridiger. Now what business is it of the Georgian schismatics to muse on the surname of the Russian Patriarch? Now many clergy and many lay people are simply misled, but there are also deliberate schismatics who consciously do this and there are political forces, anti-Church forces which want to destroy the universal institution of the Church. In Georgia as well as in Russia the Church is a very large and influential source. In other countries where the Church is not such an influential entity, there is not such an active movement against it, while here in Russia the Church is enormous. This is obvious from the high level of activity that one finds against the new law concerning religious freedom: letters against this law have been received from very important spheres. Many political powers, both within Russia and outside its borders, are working against it, but there are also people who are simply misled on this front.

DECR: In your opinion what effect will this schism have on simple lay people, on normal Orthodox believers?

Fr. Kobahidze: It seems to me that these simple faithful will at first be simply confused. I think that early on the schism might not have large repercussions, but then some dissatisfied priest will appear and will go over to the schismatics, and so on and so forth. And these schismatics will “consecrate” their own bishops.

In our post-Communist society, the Church is taken for some kind of government institution. People are poor, people are hungry, people are dissatisfied with so-called official structures. The image presented by the opposition is very attractive. The image of the opposition is proclaiming itself as clear and shining in the purity of the teaching of the faith! And this attracts those people who are not trying to live into true Orthodox teaching, For this reason Prof. Alexander Dvorkin notes that sectarian teaching is always at a primitive level, like television instruction, but Orthodox teaching is something it is necessary to experience in the whole of one’s being. You have to truly ponder it and get into it.

DECR: In your opinion is it possible to have within the Orthodox Church a sectarian psychology?

Fr. Kobahidze: Of course it is possible! This is precisely what we are confronted with. And I can mention another danger which results from sectarian psychology: I am the chaplain of the University Church. When the youth and the intelligentsia see somebody, they say that ‘if they are church people we do not want to have anything to do with the Church,’ and as a result one finds a complete apathy to religious barriers. A certain television reporter came from Germany and told us that in Germany nobody fights against the Church. When asked why, he answered that it was because nobody cares whether the Church exists or not. In our articles they write explicitly against the authority of the Patriarchate in society.

Unfortunately we have few educated clergy. Everybody is afraid to be seen as a modernist. It is much easier to say the television is “Satan’s box” than it is to preach the faith on television. It is much easier to say that everyone will perish than it is to preach the salvation of people. Often the words of Hieromonk Seraphim Rose are brought out against ecumenism. But this is also only half-truth. Recently Fr Damaskin’s [biography of Fr. Seraphim Rose] has appeared called “Not Of This World,” where he writes that in the second half of the life of Seraphim Rose he changed a great deal and he even wrote that ecumenism is not a heresy. Have you read this? When I printed this, they almost went crazy because many people are now showing themselves to be fans of Seraphim Rose, but he writes clearly that “ecumenism is not a heresy”. He said “the golden mean — this is the royal way.” But it is very difficult in these days to walk along this mean. And for some reason sectarian psychology is compelling people, seminarians and younger clergy. Why? I have not yet fully understood why.

DECR: The Orthodox Church has played a very significant role in the life of the Georgian people and in the course of all its history. The person of the Catholicos-Patriarch, his personal participation has played a significant role in the solving of conflicts in difficult times in the recent past. How, in your opinion, might this schism show an effect on the fate of the whole country and the whole Georgian people?

Fr. Kobahidze: Well, it will further weaken the unity and the integrity of the Georgian people. In addition to this I recall the words of the Lord, “O if only you were cold or hot!” (Rev. 3,15). If such indifference spreads throughout all society, we will simply perish. Georgia cannot be both indifferent to religion and also a flourishing government, such as perhaps Sweden. But there are people who want to make Georgia like that. We have modernist currents, especially in philosophical circles, which say “Let us become Roman Catholic”. They think that if Georgia becomes Catholic then it would become a European country. This is all directed in the hope that the real Orthodox world view would be discarded. Most of these articles are written by non-believers, for whom God is something abstract, but who want to create a sensation — and this is often done by blaming and insulting the Patriarch or a priest. We have an expression that “in murky waters, everyone wants to catch their own fish.” Everybody catches his own, but somebody can say “It is all the Patriarch’s fault, let him leave, and there will be peace among us all”. A significant part of this schism is directed precisely against the Patriarch Ilya, indeed against one of the most spiritual and enlightened patriarchs who exists in today’s Orthodox world.

DECR: Thank you for these accounts and insights. We will pray that this schism, which is inspired by the enemy of the human race, would cease as soon as possible by the strength of God which is always finally that which is victorious over any human evil and any human untruth.

posted April 15, 1998