Orthodox ties that bind

stninaIf you paid close attention to all of the mainstream coverage of the fighting between Russia and Georgia, you may have noticed that the stories ignored a crucial fact about these two nations.

Yes, there was a ghost in there. To the credit of the New York Times — this is why we need major newspapers with foreign resources — it finally plugged that hole in the soul. I’m sorry that this post is coming several days late, but your GetReligionistas have been caught up in, you know, Hurricane Sarah.

Here’s the plain, but solid, lede, offering information that all Orthodox Christians know, but was missing from the headlines:

MOSCOW – While the leaders of Russia and Georgia exchange recriminations, Christians in the two nations are worrying about the damage that the bitter conflict has inflicted on the cherished unity of the Orthodox Church.

More than 100 million Russians affirm the Orthodox faith, making up the largest Orthodox Church in Christendom. The post-Soviet Russian government has re-embraced Orthodoxy as the national faith. …

Georgia is equally identified with its Orthodox Church. But the supposedly unthinkable prospect of two Orthodox nations at war with each other failed to deter either Russia or Georgia from armed conflict in August.

The two churches expressed dismay. The patriarchs of both the Russian and Georgian Orthodox Churches issued immediate appeals for peace. The strong urgings were all the more striking for the Russian patriarch, Aleksy II, who rarely differs publicly with the Kremlin.

And, yes, there is a story there.

In that part of the world, it is news when religious leaders stand up to their governments, in whatever way they can. That has happened at the top of the Orthodox church leadership in Serbia (and in other religious hierarches in that region, too).

It’s pain to bullets flying, but it does offer moral clarity to hear religious leaders quoted as saying:

“Today, blood is being shed and people are perishing in South Ossetia, and my heart deeply grieves over it,” Patriarch Aleksy said in a statement on Aug. 8 as the fighting raged. “Orthodox Christians are among those who have raised their hands against each other. Orthodox peoples called by the Lord to live in fraternity and love are in conflict.”

Two days later, in a sermon in Tbilisi, Patriarch Ilia II of the Georgian Orthodox Church said that “one thing concerns us very deeply — that Orthodox Russians are bombing Orthodox Georgians.” According to the church’s Web site, he added: “This is an unprecedented act of relations between our countries. Reinforce your prayer and God will save Georgia.”

Read on. This is really a background feature, as opposed to a news story. Much of the information is sad. There are times when faith appeals do not work. At the very least, these events have to knock a hole or two in all of those mainstream media reports that Vladimir Putin is a devout churchman of some kind.

Orthodox readers will flinch when they read parts of this report and differ with some of the conclusions drawn from the facts presented. But this is a crucial part of the clash between Russia and Georgia. I hope that the Times continues to pursue this angle.

And that icon? If you know anything about Georgia, then you know about St. Nina, Equal of the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia. St. Nina, pray for Georgia and Russia.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    It sounds akin to the European leaders in the Western Church who created spiritual and moral crisis to justify wars against each other–all to honor “Just War.”

    Alas, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says of the end times “there will be wars and rumors of wars.” (Matthew 24:6,7) Elsewhere Matthew records Jesus’ words about how people would respond to him:

    “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:34-39 NASB)

    While it is commendable to pray for peace and to work for peace, no where are we given a promise that we will have peace on earth.

  • FW Ken

    The post-Soviet Russian government has re-embraced Orthodoxy as the national faith. . . .

    When I read this in the excerpt, I thought it would be nice to know more about what constitutes a “national faith” in the Orthodox and eastern contexts. The full article gave me a bit of an answer to the question, as well as some good basic history on the inter-relations of the different national churches. Specifically, what does the 10% attendance rate mean when 70% claim adherence to the “national faith”? That’s not a dig at Orthodoxy, btw, nor at the Russians – I suspect those figures would look good in some nominally Catholic European countries, and possibly in protestant Scandinavia. In fact, I know those figures would look good in the Church of England, with an average Sunday attendance at about 4% of nominal membership.

    So,then what, in Russia, is a “national faith”?

  • http://www.rr.pt Filipe

    The myth of pan-orthodox solidarity should no longer exist, especially when it comes to the russian church.
    Besides the on-going conflict with Constantinople, Russia also has problems with the Ukrainian Orthodox, and this situation with Georgia didn’t exactly come out of nowhere either.
    The Russian church had de facto taken over the churches in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Just recently Forum 18 reported that georgian monasteries “left behind” in Abkhazia are being threatened to change affiliation or leave.
    It is of course touching that Patriarch Alexy should speak out against the war and the bombings etc. but he didn’t seem to worry too much about making the problem worse beforehand.

  • http://2natures.blogspot.com/ Roland

    When I first read Patriarch Alexy’s statement, I was impressed by its apparent sincerity – not at all what I was expecting. It was in marked contrast to the statements of Serbian bishops in the 1990s, which were typically pro forma denunciations of violence, “balanced” by statements of sympathy for the legitimate concerns of Serbian nationalists.

    I am not ready to call Russia an “Orthodox nation.” I still think of it as an unrepentant communist nation whose ancestors happened to be Orthodox. (Until a few months ago I thought of Serbia the same way, but Serbia’s new leaders seem to be entertaining the possibility of turning away from that nation’s communist/nationalist past.)

    Unfortunately, nationalistic conflicts between Orthodox churches are not at all unprecedented. Moscow still can’t get over the defection of Orthodox parishes in Estonia, and the Georgian church is reported to have confiscated both Greek and Armenian churches in Tbilisi.

  • http://www.njegos.org Serbian

    I am a Serb and an Orthodox Christian.

    I just wanted to reply to “Roland”‘s comments.

    I’d like to make several points:

    1) Serbia and Serbians (Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Krajina) are an Orthodox nation. All true Serbs are Orthodox. If one is a Serb and Roman Catholic, then he is a Croat. If one is a Serb and Muslim, then he is a “Bosniak”. If one is a Serb and an atheist or communist, then he is in line with the New World Order.

    2) Serbia is ruled by proponents of the New World Order. …

    3) Russia is the land and nation of all of its citizens. Almost all ethnic Russians are Orthodox, while other Russian citizens belong to other faiths, and freely practice them. …

  • Kamal

    I caught a glimpse of this ghost in a BBC news report a few weeks (months?) ago. One of the Georgian women interviewed said that she couldn’t understand why there was fighting ‘among brothers, among Christians’. That stood out to me. The BBC apparently didn’t care for it.