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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.

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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.

 

 

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Abkhazia is a very ethnically diverse region of Georgia, with Orthodox people of Georgian, Abkhaz, Greek, Russian and Ukrainian descent. With the support of the Moscow Patriarchate, some Abkhaz clergy have been agitating for an autocephalous (self-ruling) Church of Abkhazia and lobbying the Ecumenical Patriarchate for recognition. The Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, Ilia II, used to be the resident Bishop of Abkhazia in his younger days, and today is still styled as Metropolitan of Abkhazia and Bichvinta, so he has strong feelings on the subject. So far, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholow has strongly opposed such measures and ruled that this is an internal affair of the Church of Georgia. The Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate have likewise been supportive of Georgia’s claims to date. It is likely that this position will be reiterated in Constantinople this month.

Open address of IDPs to World and Georgian Patriarchs

The delegation of Abkhazian legitimate government and the representatives of the Patriarch`s Administration will meet with the World Patriarch in Istanbul on September 17, 2012. The delegations plan to discuss and assess the attempts of the religious figures serving on the territory of the breakaway Abkhazia, who demand autocephaly to the Abkhazian Orthodox Church.

The IDPs from Abkhazia assembled in the Sokhumi University today and elaborated an address to the World Patriarch and the Patriarch of All Georgia, in which they are objecting to the separation of Abkhazian church from Georgian one.

via Open address of IDPs to World and Georgian Patriarchs.

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Saint John Chrysostom was Patriarch of Constantinople in the 4th century and one of Orthodox Christianity’s greatest theologians, liturgists and orators. For this reason, he received the moniker “Golden-Mouth” (Chrysostomos in Greek). He died in the Gagra district of Georgia.

Of Greco-Syrian background, Saint John Chrysostom was born in Antioch and ordained as a deacon there in 381. In 386 he became a priest and was famed for over a decade as an eloquent orator. His homilies are still widely recited at Orthodox churches during the sermon. His particular passions were compassion for the poor, for Christians to lead simple lives, and straightforward interpretation of Holy Scriptures that common people could comprehend.

Against his wishes, he was appointed Patriarch of Constantinople in 398, where he continued to preach against extravagance, which created hostility amongst the gentry and the Imperial family. The Eastern Roman empress, Eudoxia, in particular developed a grudge against him. Concurrently, the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, at the time wanted to depose John and control Constantinople himself.

As a result, a rigged Synod was called; Saint John Chrysostom was deposed for heresy and banished to Armenia. He continued to write letters to his flock in Constantinople, for which he was further banished to Georgia. He died near Bichvinta (Pitsunda in the Abkhaz language) in the Gagra district of Georgia’s Abkhazeti region in 407. A cathedral in his memory was commissioned by King Bagrat III of Georgia in the 10th century in Bichvinta, which still stands.

Saint John Chrystostom was declared a saint not long after his death and his remains were eventually repatriated to Constantinople. They were looted as trophies by Roman Catholic Crusaders in 1204 and taken to Rome where they were installed in the Vatican. As a gesture of goodwill, the Pope of Rome returned these relics to Constantinople in 2004.

Saint John Chrysostom has great significance in Georgia. His Divine Liturgy was translated into Georgian soon after his death and is now the standard service performed on Sunday mornings throughout the country.  His Paschal Homily is recited at every Orthodox church in Georgia at Easter. The place of his repose in Abkhazeti was a place of pilgrimage for Georgian Orthodox Christians for centuries, a tradition sadly impeded by Russian occupation now. His coffin, no longer in use, is still on display.

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