As most readers will know, a terrible civil war broke out in Georgia’s northwestern Abkhazia region in the early 1990’s, with huge civilian casualties on both sides and finally, the ethnic cleansing of most of the region’s ethnic Georgian population by Apsuan (Abkhaz) militias and Russian troops.
The roots of this conflict are disputed, with some saying that chauvinistic policies of the newly-minted Georgian government regarding ethnic minorities created a conflict where none had existed before. Others say that elements of the Russian military and intelligence created the conflict in collaboration with a small number of Apsuan opportunists, as part of the Russian “Divide and Rule” policy mirrored in Moldova and Azerbaijan. It is within the realms of possibility that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Georgia’s Patriarch Ilia was a bishop in Abkhazia in the late 1960’s, so he is no doubt quite well acquainted with many of the identities amongst the Orthodox Christian population of today’s Abkhazia. Native Christians are in the awkward position of being under the recognised canonical authority of the Church of Georgia, at a time when no Georgian clergy are permitted to enter the region. Concurrently some elements in the Moscow Patriarchate have been trying to increase their influence and role in religious affairs in Abkhazia, which is not entirely welcomed by all the Orthodox Christians there. It would not be surprising if local Christians felt they were in the midst of a jurisdictional tug-of-war.
Recently one of Abkazia’s Apsuan clergymen filmed an appeal to the Pan-Orthodox Council, requesting recognition of the Church of Abkhazia as an autocephalous Orthodox Church. It makes for interesting viewing.
Please note that the author does not endorse his views or arguments, and our learned Georgian friends will no doubt find ample opportunities to dispute his historical justifications for autocephaly. It is however important to understand the thinking and arguments of a Christian community who feel their needs are not currently being met by existing arrangements, so that creative solutions may be found.
The blog’s readers are welcome to contribute their comments (in a civil and respectful spirit) in response to his appeal.
The Church of Georgia, presiding over the most ethnically diverse country in the region, has generally done a very good job of managing its mission to ethnic minorities in Georgia. Under the authority of the Georgian Patriarchate, we have two Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, two Greek-language parishes on the Black Sea coast, an Aramaic-language parish in the Assyrian town of Qanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti, and an English-language parish in Tbilisi. Intermarriage between the faithful of different ethnic groups is common. It is not unusual to find Georgians of Armenian, Chechen, Ossetian and Apsuan descent in Georgian or Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, where they are treated the same as any other parishioner.
Abkhazia is also a multi-ethnic region, with churches attended by a mixture of Apsuans, Slavs, Greeks and (in some regions where Georgians remain), Mingrelians. It also has non-Orthodox minorities; Armenian Apostolic Christians, a tiny number of Roman Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Pagans. Just as the rest of Georgia faces challenges dealing with diversity, so does the region of Abkhazia. With few non-Georgian residents of Abkhazia travelling to Georgia since 1991, it is possible that Apsuan attitudes are frozen within the bitter experiences of the early 1990’s, and impressions of the Georgian Church’s willingness to make accommodations for ethnic differences, liturgical language and regional peculiarities are outdated. It is quite possible that Christian communities in Abkhazia could learn a great deal from their co-religionists in the rest of Georgia in this regard.
It is terribly sad to witness schism, both political and ecclesiastical, within Georgia’s borders, and it is to be hoped that two fraternal peoples who have worshipped side-by-side for centuries and intermarried so extensively can achieve a satisfactory reconciliation with time.