Staunton, July 16 – The Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church is approaching the issue of religious jurisdictions in South Osetia in the same way it did in Abkhazia, building its own churches but not challenging the subordination of the church hierarchy there to Tbilisi.
The Moscow church maintains that canonical territories do not change when political ones do, a position protecting it in principle against the loss of bishoprics, parishes and followers when Russia’s borders contract but that means it cannot make to churches on territories that shift in the other direction, however much the religious in those territories may want it.
But because the Moscow Patriarchate is interested in advancing its own position even in these places, it first in Abkhazia and now in South Osetia has begun a program to build churches subordinate to it rather than to the local hierarchy, something that compromises its position as well as creating complexities for the Orthodox in South Osetia.
Two weeks ago, Vladislav Maltsev writes in NG-Religii, the Russian Orthodox archbishop of Vladikavkaz reached an agreement with Leonid Tibilov, the president of the breakaway South Osetian state on the construction of a church in Tskhinval for those loyal to Moscow Patriarchate (ng.ru/events/2015-07-15/4_osetia.html).
As the Moscow commentator points out, “South Osetia is within the jurisdiction of the Georgian Orthodox Church,” something that the Moscow church has not disputed even though “the republic de facto has been independence from Tbilisi since 1991” and even though many Orthodox there have asked to be absorbed.
But the Moscow Patriarchate has invariably said no, and as a result, the Orthodox in South Osetia have affiliated themselves with a Greek synod established in 1984 in Athens and recognized only by a few churches in the Balkans and not by the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. (Earlier, the South Osetian church was briefly part of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad.)
To serve as pastor of the new Moscow church in the South Osetian capital, the patriarchate has named Archpriest Sergey Kokoyev, reportedly a popular move because he fought alongside the South Osetians against Georgia in 2004. And that has sparked rumors, still unconfirmed, that Moscow will in the end absorb the South Osetian church.
But the Moscow Patriarchate is unlikely to do so because were it to agree, it would undermine its position on Ukraine, a place far more important to the Moscow church and indeed one where its future as a religious and political body increasingly depends.