Abkhazian Orthodoxy at crossroads

The Abkhazian wing of the Georgian Orthodox Church is seeking full independence from its neighbor. After the conflict between the two in the ‘90s, it’s been hoping for church freedom and counts on Russia’s support.

Nothing seems to have changed in a small church in the town of Novy Afon since the Abkhazian wing split from the Georgian Orthodox church. Father Vissarion Allia is an active supporter of the Church’s self-rule. Together with local worshippers he would like to see the parishes under the temporary control of Moscow since the republic has been recognised by Russia, eventually leading to a fully independent Abkhazian church.

“We are hoping that the Moscow patriarchy will make such a decision. There are historical facts that should not be forgotten. And I think Russia, and Patriarch Kirill in particular, will make bold steps in that direction,” says Father Vissarion Allia.

The Abkhazian Orthodox church was formed in the 4th Century. For a long time it remained under Georgian influence but a hundred and sixty years ago it began following directives from Moscow. But with the Soviet Union, and the amalgamation into Georgia, priests were appointed from Tbilisi – services held in the Georgian language – and woe betide anyone who didn't like it.

The Russian, Abkhazian and Georgian orthodox churches have a lot in common, including their problems. During the Stalin era they were forced into unwanted reforms, and that’s something that they have to deal with now, with Russia, Abkhazia and Georgia having become independent states.

The rebellion by Abkhazian priests has been criticised by the Georgian patriarch.

“These petitions made by some spiritual leaders cannot be taken seriously, and we do not take them seriously. No one has a right to separate from the mother church,” says Georgian Patriarch Iliya.

Although the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church is that the status of the Abkhazian dioceses should remain unchanged, some priests are more pragmatic.

“You know, you can make people pay taxes to the government that they don’t like. But you cannot force people to confess to a priest that they don’t like. Unfortunately there are some interethnic problems in the Orthodox Church. It’s also a fact that the next few generations of Abkhazians will never confess their problems to Georgian priests. So we have a question – how to preserve Christianity in Abkhazia if they are not willing to accept the Georgian priests,” says Deacon Andrey.

Since 1993, when Georgian refugees, among them many priests left Abkhazia, the local clergy has tended to have closer ties with neighboring Russian parishes.

And while talks on the status of the Abkhazian church have not even begun in Moscow or in Tbilisi, the hope is that the controversy will not affect the worshippers.