Professor Jemal Gamakharia
On 15th May 2011, an Ecclesiastical-Lay Congress was held at the New Athos Monastery of St Simon the Canaanite. According to several sources, in addition to a number of monks and well-known Abkhaz public figures, up to 3,000 people attended the congress. Those present included regular churchgoers or potential churchgoers (only 740 of those attending were baptised), non-believers (unbaptised persons, atheists) and even some Muslims. This religiously diverse congress adopted a resolution approving a Holy Abkhaz Metropole, which aims to achieve autocephalous status. This clearly uncanonical resolution by a respected, but nevertheless unauthorised, congress instantly met with displeasure and a sharp response from the Russian Orthodox Church. The latter was already smarting from the New Athos Monastery’s refusal shortly before the congress to admit Fr Yefrem Vinogradov, the monastery’s Prior sent from Moscow (again, sent uncanonically, that is without the approval of the Patriarchate of Georgia).
The congress’s resolution was rejected within Abkhazia both in government circles and by a number of orthodox priests. On 15th September 2009, those priests had announced the curtailment of the activities of the Sukhum-Abkhaz eparchy of the Georgian Orthodox Church and of the founders of the “autocephalous Sukhum -Pitsundа Eparchy”. On 26th May 2011, Tikhon – the Bishop of Maikop – banned Fr Dorofey Dbar and Fr Andrei Ampar, the principal organisers of the Ecclesiastical-Lay Congress, from conducting services for a year, referring to the New Athos gathering as an ‘unlawful assembly’. The young Abkhaz monks, who had themselves been ordained by the same Bishop Tikhon in Maikop, responded angrily, threatening to leave the Russian Orthodox Church. However, before taking such an extreme decision, the monks asked to be given an audience in Moscow at the Synod. The meeting in Moscow was held on 29th June 2011 but neither party has issued a statement on its outcome. This suggests that no agreement was reached on the fundamental issues (apart from a desire to continue meeting).
The response of the Georgian Orthodox Church to this situation has been relatively mild. They have called on the organisers of the congress in New Athos to rise above such antagonistic processes and to restore canonical unity. So far, its call has gone unheeded and the violation of the canonical borders of the Georgian Orthodox Church has deteriorated into a schism within Abkhazia. There are currently two self-proclaimed and mutually opposed “autocephalous churches” operating in Abkhazia: on the one hand, the Sukhum-Pitsunda Eparchy with Fr Vissarion Aplia at its head; and, on the other hand, the Abkhaz Metropole with Fr Dbar at its head.
It is interesting to recall that on 24th–27th May 1917, a more or less identical ecclesiastical-lay congress led by secular figures as well as an atheist priest adopted a resolution to form a standalone (but not autocephalous) Abkhaz church. This church would have a bishop at its head, to be elected not by the clergy but by the Abkhaz people.[i] Perhaps the organisers of the New Athos congress were to some extent acting on the basis of popular traditions and historical experience.
On 26th July 2011, Abkhazia’s religious problems were discussed at the Kiev meeting of the Primates of the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church. As expected, no concrete decisions were made. However, the processes that had taken place in the Abkhaz republic were judged to be “canonically improper” and detrimental to the spiritual life of the people. Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, and Iliya II, Catholicos Patriarch of All Georgia, agreed to continue discussing this issue with a view to making concrete decisions at some point in the future.
The principal aim of the Ecclesiastical-Lay Congress held in New Athos was separation from the Georgian Orthodox Church and the creation of an independent church. At the same time, however, this move may well have been an expression of the anti-Russian sentiment that has been building up in Abkhaz society over recent years – that is, an expression of dissatisfaction with Moscow’s policy in all spheres of life (territorial, economic, ecological, educational, etc.), including its ecclesiastical policy. It is likely that the real purpose of the congress was not so much to discuss purely ecclesiastical matters, which would merely have required the presence of the clergy and some authorised representatives of congregations. Instead, it is more likely that it sought to conduct a mass (“popular”) political action as a warning to demonstrate Abkhaz independence. In our view, the event bears the direct stamp of the movement for real independence.
In discussing the Ecclesiastical-Lay Congress, a number of problems came to the surface – not only church matters, but also related political issues. Without doubt, one of the main reasons behind the emergence of two “autocephalous churches”, the schism and the ecclesiastical stand-off within Abkhazia is the violation of generally accepted ecclesiastical norms: most notably, the appointment by Moscow of priests in Abkhazia without the knowledge or consent of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and the congress of clergy held on 15th September 2009 and on 15th May 2011. The clergy and interested secular parties are well aware that the “autocephalous churches” themselves consist only of a small number of priests who have been, in canonical terms from the Georgian Orthodox Church’s perspective, unlawfully appointed.
At a press conference held in connection with the New Athos congress, Fr Aplia declared:
‘the Abkhaz church’ was recognised by ‘the three of us – Vissarion, Peter and Paul. They chose me to be their leader’.
Matters are little better in the “autocephalous metropole”. Furthermore, we cannot avoid mentioning the manner in which the “Abkhaz Metropole” was proclaimed. This took place not at a congress of the clergy, but at a mass ecclesiastical-lay gathering that is not covered by ecclesiastical canons. Fr Dbar can hardly have been satisfied by the response of the Moscow Patriarchate as to why one set of norms are applied to the priests headed by Fr Aplia, who created an “autocephalous church”, and another to the “autocephalous metropole” proclaimed in New Athos.
There is a real possibility that another powerful player will enter the Abkhaz religious stage – that is, the Greek Church. This would lead to an extreme deterioration of the situation. The brusqueness of the Russian Orthodox Church’s response to the resolution of the Ecclesiastical-Lay Congress is certainly connected with the future fate of the New Athos Monastery. The Founding Principles of the Monastery of Simon the Canaanite – approved by Emperor Alexander II on 8th December 1879, at the insistence of the Russian monks of New Athos, who wanted protection from Greek dominance – state (clause 5) that only Russian brethren may become monks.[ii] Both Greeks and Russians recall this to this day (it is no coincidence that the first duty of Fr Vinogradov, appointed Prior of the monastery by Moscow, was to inveigh against “Byzantine tendencies”). The arrival at the New Athos Monastery, the region’s main pilgrimage and tourism destination, of Fr Dbar is evidence of the conflict of interests between the two churches (quite apart from the Georgian Orthodox Church’s interests) – the Greek and the Russian. Fr Dbar had been elevated by a Greek bishop to the rank of archimandrite. He is likely, along with like-minded colleagues, to attempt a renaissance of monastic life here based on the experience of Greek monasteries, including the holy Mount Athos. The Russian Orthodox Church is unlikely to accept what in its eyes is a Greek spectre abroad in New Athos. On the other hand, Moscow’s state and church policy of assimilation in Abkhazia will encounter increasing popular and clerical opposition. This opposition will take on a variety of forms – from the organisation of “ecclesiastical-lay” congresses and the introduction of “Byzantine tendencies” (which the Russian Orthodox Church so exercises), to opening wide the door to other religions.
While fully acknowledging the extreme complexity of the situation, we need to find ways and to take steps towards resolving each of the problems that have emerged.
1. Firstly, it is essential to stop antagonism escalating at all levels and directions. For a start, Bishop Tikhon’s resolution of 26th May 2011 should be withdrawn or suspended, as it is counter-productive for the spread of orthodoxy among the people of Abkhazia. Punishing clerics in this way who are seen as authoritative by the people (regardless of whether the punishment will be enforced) undermines the influence of orthodoxy and proportionately increases the influence of other religions. Of course, the action taken by Fr Dbar and Fr Ampar, to put it mildly, is not in accordance with ecclesiastical norms. However, we should also remember that the entire ecclesiastical life of Abkhazia over the last 18 years has proceeded and continues to proceed outside the canonical framework, albeit in circumstances for which these young monks are not at all to blame. We can only welcome the efforts of the young Abkhaz monks in reinstating liturgical texts which were translated into the Abkhaz language at the start of the 20th century but then lost, and using them to celebrate church services.
2. The way out of this situation is to continue the constructive dialogue started in Kiev between the Greek and Russian churches, while complying in both word and deed with the principle of the inviolability of canonical borders. The churches currently enjoy considerable influence over the population, and they could play a serious role in easing both Georgian-Abkhaz and intra-Abkhaz church antagonisms.
3. If there is goodwill from all parties, it would be possible (and is essential) for the churches to be opened up to provide spiritual succour[iii] to the multi-ethnic population of Abkhazia – above all, to the truly orthodox Gali district. This could well stimulate a multilateral talks process and play a positive role in easing antagonisms between the Georgian and Abkhaz churches and within the Abkhaz church itself.
As we can see, therefore, the Ecclesiastical-Lay Congress convened on 15th May 2011 in New Athos revealed a complex and contradictory reality. More specifically, it uncovered a raft of relatively urgent ecclesiastical, ecumenical and political problems that affect the lawful interests of Abkhaz society, all the other religions of Abkhazia, the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, and Georgia and Russia. Unless these problems are resolved, they can only deteriorate, creating an even more urgent situation. The priority must be for all parties to endeavour to prevent disputes or antagonism between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church, which have so many common interests. In fact, in the absence of diplomatic relations, these two churches are the only official organisations maintaining a link between these two orthodox peoples and countries.
Professor Jemal Gamakharia
The Abkhaz perspective on the same issue from Nadezhda Venediktova, writer and columnist for "asarkia.info"
[i] M. Tarnava (1917). ‘Kratkii ocherk istorii abkhazskoi tserkvi’ [A short essay on the history of the Abkhaz church], pamphlet, Sukhumi, pp.19–20.
[ii] ‘Abkhazia i v ney Simono-Kanaanitsky Monastyr’ [Abkhazia and the Monastery of Simon the Canaanite] 1899, с.216–219, available in Russian at http://yakovkrotov.info/Opis_A/00001/00914_Abhaziya.pdf.
[iii] In Russian “Dukhovnoe okormlenie”, defined as ‘pastoral care for salvation, consisting of spiritual guidance and prayer’. See explanation in Russian at http://azbyka.ru/dictionary/14/okormlenie_duhovnoe-all.shtml.