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Georgia’s Patriarch Tells Russian Counterpart Status Quo in Abkhazia, S Ossetia Must Change

By Tea Mariamidze
Tuesday, December 5
(TBILISI) — In a letter sent by Georgia’s powerful Patriarch Ilia II to his Russian counterpart, Kirill, the latter congratulated the Moscow Patriarchate on the 100th anniversary of restoration, but warned that significant challenges still exist before relations can be normalized between their two countries and certain key issues continue to trouble the closely allied branches of Orthodox Christianity

“We had the problems during the Atheist (Soviet)regime... Both churches have overcome this terrible period of history with great devotion and huge sacrifices,” Ilia II wrote in his letter to the Moscow Patriarch.

He later added that despite the friendly bond and full communion that the two churches share, neither serve as strong enough stand-alone foundations to end the still hostile relations between the Georgian and Russian governments.

The main point of contention between the two countries remains the issue of Georgia’s Russian-backed breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The far larger and more culturally important of the two for both Georgia and its branch of the Orthodox Church is the question of Abkhaz secessionism – both politically and spiritually.

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Abkhazia and South Ossetia fought bloody separatist wars with Georgia’s central government from 1991-93. Allied to Moscow and assisted on the battlefield by Russian troops, the Abkhaz and South Ossetians routed Georgia’s armed forces. The two regions have remained outside Tbilisi’s authority since the early 1990s, while Russia maintains a huge military occupation force in each.

In addition to the Moscow proxies that make up Abkhazia’s rebel government in the regional capital Sukhumi, the self-declared Abkhaz Orthodox Church maintains that it is an autocephalous – or independent – branch of Orthodoxy with a bishop that is not required to report to a higher-ranking cleric.

The Abkhaz Church declared itself independent of the Georgian Patriarchate in September 2009, claiming it was re-establishing the sovereignty it lost when its status was disbanded in 1814 and absorbed into the the Russian Orthodox Church. It was later transferred to the jurisdiction of the Georgian Church in 1917, shortly after the abdication of Russia’s Tsar Nicholas II.

Despite Moscow’s backing of the secessionist authorities in Sukhumi, the Russian Orthodox Church recognizes the jurisdiction of the Georgian Patriarchate in both breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

The parties have repeatedly confirmed the necessity to create a joint working group that would help solve certain issues in Abkhazia. The Georgian side has already named the Bishop Grigor of Tsalka to head their delegation of the Russian-Georgian working group.

“It is important that relations between our countries are based on fairness and respect towards each other,” Ilia II noted in his letter.

Ilia II was invited to the Russian capital to attend the festivities dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate, but could not attend due to poor health. A delegation of Georgian clerics attended in his place.