Is Abkhazia returning to Byzantium?


Georgy Kalatozishvili, Tbilisi. Exclusively to Vestnik Kavkaza 


The Minister of Justice of Abkhazia registered the Christian religious organization Sacred Metropolis of Abkhazia (SMA) with its office in New Athos. Thus, the Abkhazian state legally equaled SMA and the Sukhumi-Pitsunda Eparchy (SPE).

It seemed the decision was purely juridical and didn’t touch on the interests of various geopolitical forces, including Russia and Georgia, which are involved into a big geopolitical game over the small republic, whose independence was recognized by Moscow in 2008.

In fact the problem of autocephaly of the Abkhazian Church, its place in the church world and its status has huge importance beyond the church sphere. Let’s remind the grounds of contradictions between Sacred Metropolis of Abkhazia and Sukhumi-Pitsunda Eparchy: SMA is headed by Dorofei Dbar (secular name – Dmitry Dbar) who used to be a churchman of the Russian Orthodox Church, but the ROC Patriarchy has forbidden him to service because Father Dorofei’s position doesn’t coincide with the ROC’s approaches.

Vissarion Aplia (secular name Vissarion Pilia), who heads the SPE is still formally thought to be Hierarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, even though he has broken up with it. Both churchmen are striving for the restoration of autocephaly of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church. Father Vissarion Aplia counted on Moscow Patriarchy, while Father Dorofei Dbar relies on the support of Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

After the events of August 2008, when Russia and Georgia fought a 5-day war, the Russian Orthodox Church stated that it still considers Abkhazia a canonic territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church, but addressed to the GOC for “timely guidance of the flock in Abkhazia”, referring to a small number of Abkhaz churchmen and absence of Georgian priests in this eparchy.

Of course, the main goal of the ROC was restoration of the New Athos Monastery, one of the shrines of the Russian Orthodox Church. Initially the head of the GOC Ilya II stood against any compromises, including “timely guidance” and timely shifting the New Athos Monastery to the ROC. At the same time, the Abkhazian side pretended that it wasn’t against “timely management” by the ROC, but the process was prevented by hierarchs of the Georgian Orthodox Church and personally Patriarch Ilya II.

The truth came to the light when a compromise with the Georgian church was found and the Moscow Patriarchy tried to send Father Efrem (Vinogradov) to New Athos: the Abkhazian clergy firmly resisted “appointment of the monastery’s head from Moscow”; on May 15, 2011, about 2 000 people gathered in the New Athos Monastery and decided to establish Sacred Metropolis of Abkhazia.

President of Abkhazia Alexander Ankvab addressed to Patriarch Kirill for ordination of the bishop of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church, stating that “Constantinople is too far from us on many grounds.” At the same time, the Abkhazian authorities understand clearly that ordination of the Abkhazian bishop in the current situation would mean recognition of autocephaly of the Abkhazian Church. It would be very difficult for the ROC because it would lead to a conflict not only with Constantinople, but also with the Georgian church which could recognize autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Dorofei Dbar and his supporters try to restore in Abkhazia not only a Christian culture, but the identity which existed 10 centuries ago when Abkhazia was thought to be one of the most ancient Christian countries and an integral part of the Byzantium, i.e. (looking from the Caucasus)  the Western world. Therefore, the church and people’s movement of Dorofei Dbar and his supporters is a movement for European identity and European future of Abkhazia.