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Poison plot reveals conflicting camps in Georgia’s Orthodox Church

27 February 2017

The imbroglio over the alleged attempted poisoning of a ‘high-ranking priest’ shows no signs of fading away. The Prosecutor’s Office of Georgia has promised to disclose further details, but questions remain about what is going on in the Georgian Patriarchate, one of the most influential institutions in the country. Given the furor surrounding the murder attempt, covert clashes between Georgian Orthodox clerics have begun to leave the shadows.

The strange case of Giorgi Mamaladze and the cyanide

Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvili, head of Batumi and Lazeti Eparchy and the Patriarch’s nephew (patriarchate.ge)

Giorgi Mamaladze was arrested on 10 February in Tbilisi International Airport on suspicion of planning to commit murder, as he was about to board a flight to Berlin, where the Patriarch was receiving treatment. An investigation is ongoing for attempted murder and for unauthorised possession of a firearm (which police found in his home). If found guilty, he will face 7–15 years in prison.

Thirty-one-year-old Mamaladze, originally from the seaside town of Kobuleti, worked as deputy director of the Church’s property management service and as director of the Church’s St Ioakime and St Ana medical centre.

In a letter addressed to the Patriarch obtained by Rustavi 2, Mamaladze reportedly complains about problems he had discovered while examining the Church’s finances. The authenticity of the letter has not been confirmed, however, Mamaladze’s lawyer says that he had previously sent a letter of similar content to the Patriarch.

According to Metropolitan Petre Tsaava, a prominent figure in the Church, Mamaladze had found some irregularities regarding the financial operations of the Church, including corrupt schemes, and wanted to share the information with Ilia II.

Archbishop Iakob Iakobashvili, another leading figure, responded to Tsaava’s claims denying any irregularities, wrongdoings or violations of the law, and claiming that he was planning to audit the Church himself.

Opposing Sides

Soso Okhanashvili, former head of Patriarch’s security service and son-in-law of Dimitri Shiolashvili (tabula.ge)

Giorgi Mamaladze’s case has demonstrated once again that there are at least two major opposing factions vying for power within the Church. The first includes the Patriarch’s nephew, Metropolitan Dimitri Shiolashvili, who reportedly has his uncle’s support. Shiolashvili has been strengthening his positions in the Church in recent years. His supporters include his son-in-law, the head of Patriarch’s security service, Soso Okhanashvili, Metropolitan Petre Tsaava; and others. Mamaladze was also widely considered to be a supporter of Shiolashvili — before moving to Church’s property management service, he served under Shiolashvili in the Batumi diocese.

While consecrating Shiolashvili as a bishop back in 1996, the Patriarch singled him out: ‘This is a very important day for me as well, for you are family. This imposes a greater responsibility on you. You must be an example of obedience and humility not only for high priests, but for the clergy and believers as well’.

Metropolitan Petre Tsaava, head of Chkondidi Eparchy

Shiolashvili had remained silent on Mamaladze’s arrest until 23 February. Speaking to several journalists by phone, he denied claims that he has ambitions of becoming Patriarch, and said that he is not aware of any ‘shadow government’ inside the institution. His comments were met with scepticism.

Theologian Mirian Gamrekelashvili, a long time church-watcher, told RFE/RL that in recent years, two main factions have been trying to place their supporters in positions of power throughout the Church.

Shorena Tetruashvili — the ‘Grey Cardinal’?

The second faction is a motley group which reportedly enjoys the support of the majority of high priests, as well as the government. Rumours abound that the real power behind this faction is the Patriarch’s secretary-referent, Shorena Tetruashvili.

Shiolashvili supporter, Metropolitan Tsaava has been involved in an ongoing spat with Tetruashvili, publicly claiming that she is ‘the leading figure in the institution’, accusing her of fostering a ‘shadow government’, and referring to her as the ‘Grey Cardinal’.

Giorgi Mamaladze, arrested on 10 February on suspicion of planning to commit murder, is also considered to be a supporter of Dimitri Shiolashvili

Tetruashvili did not respond to the accusations until 15 February, when confronted by a journalist from the Georgian Public Broadcaster (GPB) she said ‘It is not about me. He [Tsaava] is referring to another person, it’s his problem’, before refusing to continue speaking. However, Tsaava made it clear in his interview with Rustavi 2 that he was referring to Tetruashvili.

Tsaava claims that Tetruashvili has a huge amount of influence on the majority of high priests and bishops, even controlling them. Tetruashvili, who maintains a low profile publicly has refused to answer the accusations.

Several of Tetruashvili’s supporters have recently clashed with Soso Okhanashvili, the Patriarch’s head of security and son-in-law of Shiolashvili. On 23 February Mikael Botkoveli accused Okhanashvili of not attending church. After Okhanashvili accused him of lying, Botkoveli resigned from his post, protesting that it is unacceptable for the head of the Patriarch’s security service to call the Patriarch’s secretary a liar.

Archbishop Iakob Iakobashvili, one of the leading figures in the Patriarchate

Earlier, on  4 December 2016, Archbishop Iakob Iakobashvili claimed during a sermon that ‘a group of people serving in the security service of the Patriarch is acting against Ilia II’. While not directly naming Okhanashvili, Iakobashvili remarked that ‘they think wrongly that being the son-in-law of someone means something.’

During a session of the Synod on 22 December, Iakobashvili tried to raise the issue of Okhanashvili’s dismissal, but was unsuccessful in the face of the Patriarch’s unwillingness to do so. During the same session, Tsaava also tried to raise the issue of Shorena Tetruashvili’s ‘excessive power’, but to no avail. Following this pressure, on 26 February, Soso Okhanashvili confirmed to Rustavi 2 that he had resigned from his post.

Tetruashvili’s supporters have been accused of trying to silence their opponents in the Church. In July 2015, Hieromonk Ilia Vashakidze of Borjomi-Bakuriani tried to publicly expose Archbishop Iakobashvili for ‘cooperating with the FSB’ in the 1990s and unspecified ‘criminal actions’, a few months later in December 2015, the Synod banned Vashakidze from ecclesiastical activities for ‘defaming the Church’.

Is the government involved?

The Patriarch’s secretary-referent, Shorena Tetruashvili (gpb.ge)

The prosecutor’s office has faced criticism for leaving the public in dark, and for releasing contradictory statements, which has led to suspicions that the government is trying to interfere with internal Church politics. There have been suggestions that the government is backing one of the opposing factions within the Church.

Mamaladze was detained on 10 February, but the prosecutor’s office remained silent until 13 February, after TV channel Rustavi 2 reported the arrest.

At first, Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze announced on 13 February that the target of the poisoning was a ‘high-ranking cleric’. After several media outlets named Patriarch Ilia II as the target of the attack, a spokesperson for the Prosecutor’s Office, Natia Sukhiashvili, said that the case did not concern him. However, later on 16 February, the Prosecutor’s Office released a statement claiming that all of this was the interpretation of the media, and that they had not specified who was or was not the target.

The Patriarch’s secretary, Mikael Botkoveli, who resigned from his post after Okhanashvili accused him of lying

The Patriarch successfully underwent a gallbladder operation on 13 February in Germany and returned to Tbilisi on 21 February (the operation was not connected with the alleged attempted poisoning). After returning to Tbilisi, he met with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili, President Giorgi Margvelashvili, and Chief Prosecutor Irakli Shotadze. On 23 February former PM Bidzina Ivanishvili also visited the Patriarchate. Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the ruling Georgian Dream party, has long been accused of interfering in Georgian politics and is considered by many to be the country’s real ruler behind the scenes.

The Orthodox Church is a hugely influential force in Georgian society, with public polls suggesting that they are by far the most trusted institution in predominantly Orthodox Georgia. The 84-year-old Patriarch is widely considered to be one of the most respected, influential, and powerful public figures in the country. Given the importance the Church might play in elections or even in Georgia’s foreign policy orientation, the Georgian authorities have encouraged members of the Synod to visit the headquarters of NATO and the EU.

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