The role of the Church in Georgian-Russian relations and the reaction in Abkhazia to the visit of Ilia II to Moscow

Relations between the Russian Federation and Georgia in the post-Soviet period have frequently reached a critical point. Therefore, the presence of the leading Orthodox denominations, which the majority of the population associate with the official state religion in both countries, provides an opportunity to build bridges at a different level. The people in both countries are under the impression that relations between them have not been broken off completely, that the continuation of contacts in the general spiritual and religious context retains the possibility of mutual understanding. These contacts serve as a kind of contingency communication channel which allows both countries a certain freedom to manoeuvre. Misunderstandings that occur from time to time between the two Churches – for example, in regard to the activities of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Abkhazia – also contribute, quite objectively, to the positive perception of these Churches, as a way of emphasising their independence. Even before the formal recognition of Abkhazia by the political leadership of the Russian Federation, the very fact that Abkhaz boys were trained in its educational establishments and ordained as priests meant that the ROC contributed to the rebirth of an independent Abkhaz Orthodox Church and thereby committed apocryphal acts, contrary to its assertion that it considered Abkhazia a canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC). However, there is no obvious impending conflict which could lead to a rift between the ROC and the GOC over this issue. This indirectly reflects the centuries-old diplomatic ability of both Churches to pardon each other’s antics in the name of Orthodoxy’s strategic objectives and public needs. There is no doubt about the overall political content of the ROC’s and the GOC’s activities, with each of them actively promoting its own country’s national interests. The recent visit to Moscow of Ilia II, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, from 20th to 26th January 2013, was a case in point – although the official reason for the trip to the Russian capital was the presentation of the Special Contribution to the Strengthening of Ties between the Orthodox Peoples and Churches Award to the Primate of the GOC. Following the liturgy in the Dormition Cathedral of the Kremlin on 22nd January, the Russian Patriarch Kirill stated the following: ‘We have great hopes for what is happening today in Georgia, anticipating that these political changes will also change the relations between our two brotherly countries and peoples.’ The head of the ROC added: ‘I can testify to the fact that these changes are largely the result of the Georgian Patriarch Ilia’s efforts.’ Ilia II himself later noted that ‘Russia needs a unified Georgia, while Georgia needs a strong, united Russia’; he added that he wished the matter would be promptly resolved, ‘not only for Russia and Georgia’s sake, but also for Abkhazia and Ossetia’. Russian experts highlighted that Ilia II was true to his principles this time as well, reiterating once again that Georgia would restore its territorial integrity by bringing South Ossetia and Abkhazia back into its fold.[1] The closed meeting between the Georgian Patriarch and Russia’s President Putin was even more politicised. In addition to discussing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, they also discussed trade and the existing visa regime – issues that seem far removed from Ilia II’s usual practices. The subsequent high praise for the meeting by the parties and the fact that only a couple of days later the prime ministers of both countries – Bidzina Ivanishvili and Dmitry Medvedev – held talks for the first time since 2008 at the International Economic Forum in Davos openly suggests the presence of a political motivation for Ilia II’s visit to Moscow. Reaction in Abkhazia In contrast to the perceived role of the Church in Georgian-Russian relations, the Abkhaz Orthodox Church does not play such a role in Abkhaz-Russian relations for a number of historical reasons. Even in the final years of the Soviet Union, with the revival of the Church in the USSR, Abkhazia had no national clergy of its own; instead, the ethnic Georgian clergy sent from Tbilisi ruled the roost. Consequently, the Church did not play a significant part in the rise of the Abkhaz national liberation movement. During the Georgian-Abkhaz war, when the Church in Abkhazia had already split along ethnic lines and the Abkhaz clergy were represented by the priest Vissarion Aplia, the role of the Church in Abkhaz society gradually started to increase. However, it was not until the advent of a series of young, well-educated priests who had received their religious education in Russia and who embarked on reviving religious life in Abkhazia that the Church began to play a prominent role in the public mind. Thus began a period of active attempts to revive an independent Abkhaz Orthodox Church, finally removing it from the jurisdiction of the GOC. Immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially during the Georgian-Abkhaz war of 1992–1993, Georgia’s then head of state Eduard Shevardnadze tried to convince the international community that the Abkhaz were Muslims, in order to portray Georgia as a champion of Orthodox ideals and to gain support from the Russian Federation, the majority of whose population belong to the same denomination. This same policy continued for many years after Abkhazia gained de facto independence. During that period, the Georgian Church was silent, making no attempt to refute the allegations by Georgia’s political leadership of the Muslim orientation of the Abkhaz. Therefore, when the Georgian Church suddenly started to talk later about the need to nourish the Christian population of Abkhazia, it was perceived by that population as insincere and an attempt to continue the aggressive policies of the Georgian leadership by religious means. Based on the centuries-old history of the Abkhaz Autocephalous Orthodox Church, whose Bishop Stratophil took part in the Council of Nicaea in 325AD, the Abkhaz clergy is seeking formal recognition of their Church’s independence. Despite major differences within its religious circles, which led to a schism a few years ago, the clerics of Abkhazia are united on the issue of the Church’s independence. However, two main schools of thought exist: the first is hoping for the recognition, albeit as a distant prospect, of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church by the ROC; the second is pinning its hopes on the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The visit of the Georgian Patriarch Ilia II to Moscow and the strong statement by the Russian Patriarch Kirill on the recognition of Abkhazia as a canonical territory of the Georgian Church caused a storm of indignation in Abkhaz society. Already on 25th January, the Public Chamber of Abkhazia stated that: ‘under no circumstances would the Orthodox Churches of Abkhazia and South Ossetia go back into the fold of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and the futile attempts to resolve our fate behind the two communities’ backs have led to our profound resentment.’ The following day, the Abkhaz National Unity Forum Party added its voice to that of the Chamber, claiming that ‘the Georgian Patriarch’s remarks went beyond the realm of the Church and have a pronounced political nature’. On 7th February, a roundtable discussion was held in Sukhum, where it was decided to conduct a nationwide poll before the beginning of April on whether residents of Abkhazia wanted an independent Abkhaz Orthodox Church or whether it should be left within the GOC. The poll’s proponents emphasise that this is a civil society initiative, neither linked to the state nor the Church, and that they are not taking sides in the existing Church schism in the country. They believe that the poll is needed to clarify the situation and convince the international community that the majority of the population of Abkhazia are Christian and want to revive the Abkhaz autocephaly. In fact, there is hardly any doubt over the impending results of the poll, although it is also going to be conducted in the Gal District populated by ethnic Georgians, who maintain an active relationship with Georgia. The majority of the population of Abkhazia have long believed that an independent country should have an independent Church. Conclusion The obvious political bias during the visit of the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II to Moscow in January 2013 and the strong statement by the Russian Patriarch Kirill that the ROC recognises Abkhazia as a canonical territory of the GOC has resulted in a public initiative in Abkhazia aimed at furthering the struggle for the recognition of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church’s independence. This is grist to the mill on the part of the Abkhaz clergy, who are seeking recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarchate to become a full member of the Orthodox community. It is to its credit that the GOC has quite recently fought a similar campaign for its recognition, which was only recognised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1990. Nadezhda Venediktova, writer and columnist for "asarkia.info" Read the Georgian perspective on the same issue by Professor Jemal Gamakharia. (Pусский) [1] For more reading on the subject, see (in Russian): ‘Iliya II ne postupilsya printsipami: Vizit Katolikosa v Moskvu sovpal s potepleniyem mezhdu Gruziyey i Rossiyey’ [Ilia II did not abrogate his principles: The visit of the Catholicos to Moscow coincided with a warming in relations between Georgia and Russia], NG Religiya, 6th February 2013. Available in Russian at http://www.interfax-religion.ru/index.php?act=print&div=15907 See also in English: ‘Will Ilia II reconcile Georgia and Russia?’, Georgia Times, 18th January 2013. Available at www.georgiatimes.info/en/analysis/85558-1.html. For further reading in Russian, see: ‘Iliya II posle nagrazhdeniya v Moskve potreboval vernut’ Abkhaziyu i Yuzhnuyu Osetiyu’ [Ilia II after the ceremony in Moscow demanded the return of Abkhazia and South Ossetia], Rosbalt, 22nd January 2013. Available in Russian at http://www.rosbalt.ru/exussr/2013/01/22/1084343.html