Palm Sunday Gathering Ends in Skirmish in Martvili Parish

Palm Sunday celebration today ended with skirmishes in Georgian Orthodox Church’s Chkondidi Diocese, in western Martvili Municipality, where a group of local parishioners and dismissed clergy continues opposing new Bishop Stephane, who replaced scandalously departed predecessor Petre Tsaava. Media footages showed clergy, either acting or dismissed who continue to wear clerical robes, involved in the scuffles.

A physical confrontation between the supporters and opponents of the new metropolitan near the 18th century Salkhino church first erupted after the arrival of businessman Klimenti Kekutia, who Bishop Stephane’s opponents accuse of attempting to take over Diocese-owned Salkhino lands, and of being allied with the new religious leadership.

Salkhino church abbot Daniel Gvilava, who had his right to hold sermon suspended earlier, said they had warned against the arrival of Kekutia – “an enemy of not only us but of the whole village.” The abbot also noted that the bishop’s opponents initially planned to close off the church until Easter, but agreed with the Diocese leadership to allow holding the Palms Sunday celebration in Salkhino, albeit advising metropolitan Stephane against participating in person due to continued tensions.

Media reported, that in addition to locals, scores of people from across the country, including some far-right figures Guram Palavandishvili and former MP Jondi Bagaturia, were present in Salkhino today to support the new religious leadership.

Bishop Stephane’s subsequent arrival to hold the liturgy sparked another scuffle. Anania Kalandia, a deacon dismissed by the bishop, was attacked, supposedly by the new metropolitan’s supporters during one of the skirmishes. Police launched an investigation into the assault under Article 126 of the Criminal Code. Eventually, the Metropolitan entered the church to hold the service and left it with the police backing.

Both sides anticipated today’s tensions. In the early hours of April 25, the Orthodox Church Patriarchate endorsed the Ckhondidi Diocese statement warning against escalation. Calling for “exhibiting precaution and Christian wisdom,” the statement said, “amid the tensions of the last days, even a minor reason may become ground for provocation.”

The Background

Today’s developments were preceded by several confrontations earlier this month at the Salkhino church, and other places in the Diocese. The latest incident of April 22 took place in Salkhino, where controversial businessman Kekutia was again at the center of controversy.

The historic Chkondidi Diocese has remained at the heart of the church controversy since 2019 after dismissed Bishop Petre Tsaava accused Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II of being “beset by pederasty.” Those clergymen, who remained loyal to Tsaava, vehemently opposed first interim Bishop Grigol, and then Bishop Stephane, appointed to the position in February 2021. Bishop Stephane has since begun to either dismiss or suspended the clergy who refused to obey. According to reports, about 20 churchmen and churchwomen were sanctioned by the new metropolitan.

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