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Abkhazia declares its Church independent of the Georgian Patriarchate

By Mzia Kupunia
Thursday, September 17
A group of Abkhazian clergy maintains that they have officially declared independence from the Georgian Orthodox Church, calling this a restoration of “historical justice.” The acting head of the so-called Abkhazian Church, Priest Bessarion Aplia, told Abkhazian TV on Wednesday that this decision had been made at the Assembly of the Abkhazian Eparchy clergy on September 15.

Father Bessarion accused Georgia of “spiritual aggression” against Abkhazia. “Abkhazia can in no way be an integral part of Georgia and that’s why the Tskhum-Abkhazian Eparchy, which was subordinated to the Georgian Church, has ceased to exist,” he said, adding that the Tskhum-Abkhaz diocese has been renamed the Abkhaz Orthodox Church and will consist of the new Sokhumi and Pitsunda Eparchies.

Georgian Patriarch Ilia II has called the statement of Abkhaz clerics “not serious”. The Patriarch said “Nobody has the right to declare independence without the approval of the mother church.” Georgian Patriarchate officials have said that the Abkhazian Church is “self-declared” and that “it does not exist.” The head of the Georgian Patriarchate’s Press Service, Father Davit Sharashenidze, has said that the Georgian Church’s canonical borders have been determined and cannot be re-examined. “The ‘Abkhazian Church’ does not exist, it is self declared and none of the Orthodox Churches recognise it,” he told Georgian journalists. “A bishop should be the head of an eparchy. Bessarion Aplia is a priest. This indicates the absurdity of the idea of the existence of a so-called Abkhazian Eparchy. This is a group of individuals which has nothing in common with a part of the canonical Church. This is a self-declared group calling itself the Abkhazian Eparchy,” he added.

Father Bessarion has said he is planning to ask the Patriarch of Russia to “support” the decision made by the Abkhaz clergy. “The same address will be sent to the Georgian Church, the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Jerusalem and all other Orthodox Churches, which by their decision will restore the historical justice deserved by the tortured Abkhaz nation,” Apsnypress news agency quoted Father Bessarion as saying. However, the statement of the Abkhaz clergy has not been welcomed by the Russian Orthodox Church, which has reiterated its respect for the “canonical borders of the Georgian Orthodox Church.” Representative of the Moscow Patriarchate Father Igor Yakimchuk said the same statements had been made by Abkhazian clergy before but the Russian Patriarchate’s position remains unchanged. “We support the integrity of the canonical borders of Churches,” news agency Interfax quoted him as saying.

Georgian politicians have said that the statements made by Abkhaz clergy have no judicial grounds. Parliament Vice-Speaker Paata Davitaia has said that none of the Orthodox Churches will recognise the Abkhazian Church as independent, considering the authority the Georgian Patriarch enjoys. “Bessarion Aplia is the same person who said during the Abkhazian war that every Abkhaz who killed a Georgian would be a hero. He has always fought against the Georgian Church,” Davitaia said on Wednesday.

Christian Democrat MP Giorgi Targamadze has said that the decision of the Abkhaz clergy is the result of “Russian pressure.” The MP said that the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church is not in danger. “This issue [the recognition of the “Abkhazian Church”] will not even be discussed at any level, however it is a fact that the Russian political establishment is using all means to endanger the Georgian state from all sides,” Targamadze stated. He welcomed the statement of the Russian Orthodox Church about supporting the integrity of the Georgian Church’s boundaries; he said it was “more probably the product of obedience to canonical demands” rather than a matter of conviction, but “the Russian Patriarchate has made the right statement and I hope it will maintain its position.”

Political analysts also suggest that none of the other Churches will recognize the Abkhazian Church as independent from the Georgian. Malkhaz Chemia told The Messenger that recognition of Church independence is a long process. “This process should be based on history, not politics. Even the Russian Patriarchate says it will not recognise the Abkhazian Church as separate from the Georgian,” Chemia said.