Georgian Priest Arrested for Alleged Plot to Poison Unnamed Cleric

Author: Emily Tamkin
Date Published: 02/13/2017
Publication: Foreign Policy
Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images
Photo credit: VANO SHLAMOV/AFP/Getty Images

A Georgian priest was arrested Monday for allegedly scheming to poison a high-ranking cleric, prosecutors said.

Speaking at a news conference, Georgia’s chief prosecutor, Irakli Shotadze, described a plot that could have been pulled from a Dan Brown novel or an episode of an Orthodox version of Young Pope: A private citizen informed the office that Georgian Archpriest Giorgi Mamaladze had allegedly asked him to help obtain cyanide in order to poison the cleric, who wasn’t named.

Mamaladze allegedly told the person that he would pay with both money and “unlawful benefits,” but that he allegedly wanted the cyanide in hand before leaving for Germany to visit 84-year-old Patriarch Ilia II, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Ilia II was in Berlin ahead of a gallbladder operation on Monday. The priest allegedly wanted to carry the poison with him on the plane. And, indeed, when arrested for preparation of murder at Tbilisi International Airport on Friday, Mamaladze had cyanide in his luggage. (Some good news for the patriarch: the operation was apparently successful, and Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili has sent Anzor Chubinidze, the head of the Special State Protection Service, to Berlin for his protection.)

Shotadze is not yet naming anyone (other than Mamaladze) involved because the investigation is still under way.

This case raises several questions. First, obviously, is whether Mamaladze, head of the Patriarchate’s Property Management Service, with access to the inner circle of Georgian Orthodoxy, is indeed guilty, or whether he was set up and falsely accused of plotting a crime he never intended to commit.

But if he was indeed trying to murder someone, who was it? Was it the Patriarch himself? If so, why would he want to murder the man who has helmed the the Georgian Orthodox Church since 1977? And if not, why would he take the trouble of flying the cyanide all the way to Berlin? Who was the person who turned Mamaladze in, and how was he able to procure cyanide on such short notice?

Finally, there is the question of what, if any, impact this will have on the Georgian Orthodox Church and its place in society. According to a 2014 census, 83.4 percent of Georgians are Orthodox Christians. Ilia II has overseen the growth of the church in both size and influence, and his politics are increasingly reflected in both school classrooms and parliament.

The alleged attempted murder of an unnamed high-ranking cleric won’t, of course, mean that Georgians suddenly back away from their church — but a change in the power structures and dynamics of its inner circle might have more far-reaching consequences than the prosecutor announced on Monday.