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Georgian Church calls for removal of Stalin from icon in Sameba cathedral

12 January 2024
Sameba Cathedral. Image: Mariam Nikuradze/OC Media

The Georgian Patriarchate has asked the donors of a controversial icon featuring Joseph Stalin to remove the Soviet dictator from the icon.

The icon, which was donated by the pro-Russian group Alliance of Patriots, chronicles the life of Saint Matrona of Moscow, a 20th-century Russian Orthodox Church saint. 

One of the smaller icons surrounding the central depiction of Matrona appears to feature the saint and Stalin, sparking controversy in Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace.

The church asked the Alliance of Patriots to ‘edit’ the Soviet dictator out of the icon, stating that they otherwise would do it themselves.

On Tuesday, activist Nata Peradze attempted to deface the icon, angering Alt Info, a violent pro-Russian extremist group. The far-right group surrounded Peradze’s house on Wednesday, with the activist claiming that they had assaulted several of her supporters despite a heavy police presence in the area.

[Read more: Formal investigation and far-right demonstration prompted by paint on controversial Stalin icon

As the news of the icon made headlines, the ruling Georgian Dream party vowed on 10 January to table a draft introducing stricter penalties for ‘offending religious buildings and objects’. While the specifics of the draft remain unknown, Georgian rights groups Democracy Research Institute, Tolerance and Diversity Institute, and the Social Justice Center warned that the draft could be used to curtail freedom of speech in the country.

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Church cites ‘non-canonical’ encounter after displaying the icon for months

From the onset of the controversy, the Patriarchate insisted that critics had unjustly targeted the Church, stating that the icon was dedicated to Saint Matrona, and not to Stalin. 

Davit Tarkhan-Mouravi, the leader of the Alliance of Patriots, claimed that Stalin had met Matrona for counsel during World War II. However, the Church disputed the historicity of Tarkhan-Mouravi’s claims, stating that the alleged meeting was not recorded in her canonical biography. 

The Alliance of Patriots promptly accepted the Church’s proposal to remove Stalin from the icon. However, their leader, Irma Inashvili, maintained that ‘this does not mean that we must forgive someone for insulting the icon’, and expressed her suspicion that the government was behind the Patriarchate’s call.

Some far-right activists belonging to or associated with Alt Info also expressed outrage at the Patriarchate’s statement and attacked their spokesperson, Andria Jaghmaidze, on Facebook for what they saw as the Church caving in to ‘liberals’.

While the Church has previously been accused of following the government’s instructions, especially in light of 91-year-old Patriarch Ilia II’s deteriorating health, the Patriarchate stressed that all of its statements were approved by the patriarch on Thursday.

‘We have clarified it and will reiterate again that the statements of the Georgian Patriarchate are official and always, without any doubt, agreed with the Patriarch.’