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Backgrounder: Georgia, Russia and Politics of Ecclesial Occupation

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The Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate announced late last December that it would not rush with recognizing the autocephaly (ecclesiastical autonomy) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Since this went contrary to the state policy of supporting Ukraine, as well as widespread public sentiment to that effect, many Georgians have reacted with dismay. 

Formally, the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) decided to defer the question to later Synodal gatherings. No official explanation for the decision was given, but multiple and, at times, conflicting interpretations for the reasons of such dithering were advanced by individual members of the Synod after the Patriarchal decision.

Some arguments made by GOC have been purely canonical; clerics have pointed to internal disputes within the Ukrainian church, or have stressed the need for capping Constantinople’s “growing quest” for exercising centralized authority (“Pope-ism” in a parallel to the centralized Roman Catholic Church), in an otherwise decentralized communion of independent Orthodox churches.

But the truly dominant discourse was concerning the potential political ramifications. Most commentators – both clergymen and laymen – seem to agree, that Tbilisi’s recognition of the Ukrainian Church would inevitably trigger Moscow’s counter-measures in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions – Georgia’s two Russian-held provinces – implying full incorporation of Abkhaz and South Ossetian parishes into the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Moscow Patriarchate’s foreign relations point man, Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) hinted at possible “ramifications” in case Tbilisi recognized the Ukrainian autocephaly. The cleric did not go further, but those adept at Moscow’s political vernacular were quick to solve the riddle – Russia’s response regarding the two provinces will be immediate and categorical.

To help our readers make sense of the developments, we offer you a brief review of church affairs in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions.

BRIEF SUMMARY

Does Moscow Patriarchate recognize Georgia’s canonical jurisdiction over Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions now? Yes, but only formally.

Can Georgian priests access the two territories? No. Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region remain inaccessible for Georgian clergy, with the exception of Akhalgori Municipality (Tskhinvali region) where Archbishop Isaia (Chanturia) maintains limited access.

Does local clergy in two provinces accept Georgian Patriarch’s ecclesial jurisdiction? No. As a rule, priests in these two regions are ordained in neighboring eparchies of the Moscow Patriarchate (Vladikavkaz and Maykop eparchies), and mention Russian Patriarch Kirill in their prayers.

Is the Moscow Patriarchate the only player in town? No. It operates together with several non-canonical church groups that seek independence from the Georgian Patriarchate – “Eparchy of Alania” in South Ossetia, “Holy Metropolis” and “Abkhaz Orthodox Church” in Abkhazia.

Will Moscow recognize local church groups? It’s not so clear-cut. Officially, Moscow seeks to incorporate Abkhaz and South Ossetian parishes under its pastoral care – but it needs to secure the consent of GOC, which is the only one to legally hold the ecclesiastic authority there.

Church Affairs: Abkhazia

Abkhazia is a canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church under the name of Tskhum-Abkhazeti or Sokhumi-Abkhazia Eparchy, but Tbilisi has had no ecclesial control over the area since the armed conflict in 1992-1993, when Georgian priests, along with the rest of the ethnic Georgian population, were driven out from the region.

Only two Georgian monasteries continued functioning after the armed conflict – both in Azhara, a village situated in Kodori gorge, the only area that remained under Tbilisi’s jurisdiction. Georgian government lost control over this territory as a result of the Russo-Georgian War of August 2008. The monasteries were abandoned in April 2009, when the remaining Georgian monastics – three monks and four nuns – were expelled from the region.

Bedia, a medieval Georgian Orthodox cathedral located in Ochamchire district, September 2016. Photo: anyha.org

Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili), who was enthroned as the Sokhumi-Abkhazia Bishop in May 1992, shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, continued to serve for almost two decades after the conflict, but his parish authority was valid only de jure and he was personally in exile from Abkhazia. Daniel was replaced in 2010 when Patriarch Ilia II formally took the Sokhumi-Abkhazia Eparchy under his own, direct episcopal jurisdiction.

Patriarch’s efforts to take control of his native eparchy (Ilia served as the Sokhumi-Abkhazia bishop from 1967-1977) have been to no avail – local clergy and parish have refused to accept his authority, citing his support of Tbilisi’s “nationalistic” policies. Multiple attempts by individual Georgian clergymen to hold services in Abkhazia’s Georgian-majority Gali district both before and after the 2008 war, have ended unsuccessfully as well – the priests were banned and expelled from the region.

Meanwhile, factual ecclesial control in Abkhazia has been exercised by Abkhaz priest Vissarion (Aplia), one of the only four “non-Georgian” clerics who stayed in the region after the armed conflict in early 1990s. Vissarion, like the other three priests (all of them ethnic Russians), was ordained by the Georgian Patriarchate, but stepped out of its jurisdiction at the outset of hostilities and openly supported the separatist forces. Still, Father Vissarion was never defrocked by the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Vissarion (Aplia) conducting a liturgy in a church in Sokhumi, June 2015. Photo: aiasha.ru

Left without episcopal supervision and backed by the region’s separatist authorities, Vissarion started running the church affairs independently, effectively taking over of what remained from the Sokhumi-Abkhazia Eparchy. In 1993, Aplia was self-appointed as the “senior priest” of the Sokhumi-Abkhazia Eparchy, and in 2001, he adopted the status of an “administrator” of the newly-established “Eparchial Council of the Sokhumi-Abkhazia Eparchy.”

In subsequent years, the local clergy continued to grow, filled with priests – ethnically both Abkhaz and Russian – ordained in the neighboring Maykop Eparchy of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Aplia formalized his split from the Georgian Patriarchate in 2009, when he “dissolved” the Sokhumi-Abkhazia Eparchy and announced the establishment of the “Abkhaz Orthodox Church,” hoping that Moscow’s political recognition of Sokhumi could pave way to establishment of a canonically-recognized church in Abkhazia.

But when Moscow Patriarchate signaled that it would not rush with the recognition, some Abkhaz clergy started to seek alternatives. In 2011, a group of local priests – led by Dorotheos (Dbar) and Andrey (Ampar) – broke away from Aplia, naming themselves the “Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia,” and seeking patronage and canonical recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

Dorotheos, head of the “Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia,” May 2018. Photo: anyha.org

A lengthy dispute ensued between the two groups, including on ownership of church properties. Although both sides seem to favor some sort of self-rule for the Abkhaz church, they depart significantly on the role the Moscow Patriarchate; while Aplia favors a much larger involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church and mentions the Russian Patriarch in his prayers, priests of the “Holy Metropolis” – see the Ecumenical Patriarch as their spiritual leader and commemorate him in their prayers.

Likewise, the sides disagreed on the issue of the Ukraine autocephaly; while Aplia condemned Ecumenical Patriarch’s “papal” ambitions, his rivals endorsed the move as the first step to resolving the issue of the Abkhaz church.

As of 2019, the “Abkhaz Orthodox Church” has around 15 priests and holds its regular services in around dozen churches across Abkhazia, while the “Holy Metropolis” controls six churches, the most important and largest of which is the 19th century Byzantine-style monastery in New Athos in western Abkhazia.

Of the two groups, the Russia-leaning “Abkhaz Orthodox Church” is supported by Sokhumi. 

Both groups claim succession to the Catholicate of Abkhazia, a subdivision of the Georgian Orthodox Church that existed as a semi-independent entity with ecclesiastic authority over whole western Georgia from 15th century until 1814, when the western Georgian kingdom of Imereti was annexed by the Russian Empire.

Church affairs: Tskhinvali Region/South Ossetia

Like Abkhazia, South Ossetia is a canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church and falls within the Nikozi and Tskhinvali Eparchy, led by Archbishop Isaia (Chanturia).

From the armed conflict in early 1990s until the 2008 war, Georgian priests had no access to the territories that fell outside the control of the central government, but churches in the Tbilisi-controlled areas – Akhalgori and villages around Tskhinvali, the regional capital – were administered by clerics of the Georgian Patriarchate.

Georgian priests were forced to leave the Tbilisi-controlled areas after 2008, but Archbishop Isaia has maintained limited access to Akhalgori Municipality (there are four functional monasteries in Akhalgori). He has, however, no official status in the region.

Ikorta, a 12th century Georgian Orthodox church in Tskhinvali district, April 2013. Photo: cominf.org

Church affairs in the town of Tskhinvali and other separatist-controlled areas in 1990s and 2000s were managed by South Ossetian priests under the leadership of Father Giorgi (Pukhaev), who was ordained by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), a de facto independent church that split from the Moscow Patriarchate in early 1920s.

Pukhaev and his group joined ROCOR in 1992. They were granted the status of a deanery (Blagochinie/Благочиние) in 2001, but two years later, when ROCOR started reunification talks with the Moscow Patriarchate, Tskhinvali clergy moved to the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece, a canonically unrecognized church based in Greece.

In 2005, the Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians granted the South Ossetian clergy the status of an eparchy, and Giorgi was promoted as the Bishop of the “Eparchy of Alania,” a name-sake of the medieval archdiocese in the North Caucasus under the jurisdiction of the Constantinople Patriarch.

South Ossetian leader Leonid Tibilov with Bishop Ambrose of Methone, liturgy of the Nativity of Mary, September 21, 2013. Photo: presidentruo.org

The “Eparchy of Alania” had enjoyed explicit administrative and financial support of separatist authorities, but church attendance and the number of South Ossetian clergy remained very low, ranging from four to five priests and with all of them based in the town of Tskhinvali.

After the 2008 war, the local authorities made attempts to convince the “Greek” clergy to switch loyalties in favor of Moscow. But they have failed and when the incumbent South Ossetian leader Anatoly Bibilov came to power in April 2017, he pledged to “put the South Ossetian orthodoxy in line with that of the Russian Federation.” The “Eparchy of ALania” was effectively sidelined.

New Russian Church in Tskhinvali, September 2018. Photo: cominf.org

Soon, priests from the neighboring Vladikavkaz Eparchy of the Moscow Patriarchate started services in what was previously considered to be a  Tskhinvali-recognized territory of the “Eparchy of Alania.” In mid-2018, Bibilov also broke the tradition of attending liturgies delivered by the “Eparchy of Alania,” appearing at the newly-built Russian church led by a cleric of the Vladikavkaz Eparchy and chaplain of the Russian military base in South Ossetia, Father Sergiy (Kokoev).

As of 2019, the “Eparchy of Alania” has three resident priests and is led by Ambrose of Methone (Baird), a Greece-based cleric of British nationality, who replaced Pukhaev in 2011. Canonical status of the new Russian church is undefined; clerics of the church maintain that they are not planning to mention the Georgian Patriarch in prayers – a necessary requirement for confirming their canonical presence on the territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Positions: Moscow Patriarchate

Although church groups in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions have long petitioned for patronage of the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Orthodox Church has consistently refused, arguing that it would violate the canonically-recognized borders of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

This was explicitly the case before 2008. “[We] reaffirm that the Russian Orthodox Church regards Abkhazia as part of the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church,” the Russian Holy Synod stated in 2003.

“We consider Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be a canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church, and believe that any changes to this state of affairs can destabilize the already fragile ecclesial and general political situation in the South Caucasus,” Moscow Patriarch Alexy II noted in 2005.

The official position of the Moscow Patriarchate did not change in the aftermath of the 2008 war; already fearing repercussions for Ukraine, Moscow decided not to formalize its relations with the two regions – let alone, to recognize their autocephaly.

“Political decisions do not determine questions of church jurisdictions and areas of pastoral responsibility; these issues need to be resolved in canonical terms and in dialogue of the two churches,” said Archpriest Vsevolod Chaplin, deputy chairman of Moscow Patriarchate’s External Relations Department, on August 26, 2008, on the day Kremlin recognized the two regions’ “political” independence from Georgia.

“Dialogue with our brotherly Georgian Orthodox Church continues; [our relations with Georgia] are not based on politics, but on canonical norms and questions of spiritual catering of newly established territories will be resolved on the basis of canonical law,” Archbiship Theophan (Ashurkov) said a day later.

Some even took a more optimistic line, with Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, also of the External Relations Department, saying he has no doubt that “one day Georgian priests will perform services together with their Abkhaz counterparts – in New Athos and in Kamani.” “I am sure, that over time this will happen,” he added.

On the ground, however, the Russian Orthodox Church has been far less considerate to Georgian interests, and has effectively used the post-2008 period to solidify its grip over the two regions.

Shortly after the war, Moscow dispatched chaplains to the military bases in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali whose parishes extend beyond the Russian military. It also continued training and ordaining priests, effectively treating the two territories as domains of Vladikavkaz and Maykop eparchies. Russian clerics have also openly engaged with Sokhumi and Tskhinvali leaderships, with Patriarch Kirill giving them regular audiences.

Russian Patriarch Kirill with Vissarion Aplia in Moscow, on the occasion of Kirill’s 10th enthronement anniversary, February 1, 2019. Photo: patriarchia.ru

Moscow has also been active in arbitrating internal disputes, openly taking sides between opposing church groups.

So, when Abkhaz priests announced the “Holy Metropolis,” the Moscow Patriarchate reacted by declaring them a schismatic group. Their leaders – Dorotheos and Andrey – were fully excommunicated by the Maykop Eparchy, and when this did not help to remedy the situation, the Patriarchate warned Russian tourists from visiting the “rebel” stronghold – the New Athos monastery.

Similarly, when Moscow Patriarchate saw that attempts to attract the “Alan Eparchy” clerics into its ranks had failed – it laid the foundations of a new church in the center of Tskhinvali, and convinced the local authorities to revoke the South Ossetian citizenship of the “Alan Eparchy” Bishop, Ambrose of Methone.

Russian clerics have admitted that their ecclesial interference may well not be canonical (or “semi-legal” in the words of Metropolitan Hilarion), but they have insisted that they are merely filling the vacuum that GOC is unable to fill. At different times, they have also argued that this is in the interests of the parish (with an emphasis on “Russian speakers”) and the Orthodox Christianity as a whole – or as Metropolitan Hilarion put it – “for preventing expansion of alien faiths and militant secularism.”

To secure its formal (that is – Tbilisi-approved) presence, the Russian Orthodox Church has proposed a number of arrangements, including the so called “dual jurisdiction” – which would maintain de jure GOC control over Abkhazia and Tskhinvali regions, while allowing Moscow to provide pastoral care to local parishes. Although exact modalities of this arrangement have not been spelled out, Moscow’s canonical presence would necessitate appointment of an eparchial bishop – the sole authority of which is in the hands of the Georgian Patriarchate.

  • A bishop is the highest clerical office in the Orthodox Christian church. Eparchial bishops – those responsible for particular geographic domains in a given church – are providing pastoral care for all parishes located on the territory. Divine services and ordinations of lower ranks of clergy can only be carried out with bishop’s explicit authorization.
  • They may hold the title of Bishop, Archbishop, Metropolitan, or Patriarch, but all bishops, regardless of their status, are equal; none has any authority outside of their area of jurisdiction. Likewise, bishops of one church cannot intervene in the affairs of another. Typically, they are consecrated by senior bishops (at least two) of the church they belong to, meaning that canonical appointment of new Abkhazia and South Ossetia bishops would require GOC’s explicit involvement.

Positions: Georgian Patriarchate

Despite problems in inter-state relations, the GOC has maintained cordial ties with the Moscow Patriarchate, and has generally pursued a pro-Russian stance in international church affairs of the Orthodoxy, particularly with respect to the role and the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople – Moscow’s long-time ecclesial rival.

The two have managed to find common language even in the most difficult moments for Georgian-Russian relations. The 2008 war is a case in point here; on August 15, just days after Georgian and Russian troops faced off in a battle, Patriarch Ilia II – thanks to his counterpart in Moscow – managed to travel to the conflict zone to deliver humanitarian aid and repatriate the remains of the fallen Georgian soldiers.

The intensity of Georgian-Russian church ties has not decreased in the aftermath of the 2008 war; high-level clerical delegations from Tbilisi have continued to frequent the Russian Federation (Patriarch Ilia II visited Moscow six times since the 2008 war). In 2016, the Georgian Patriarchate skipped the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, officially on the grounds of dogmatic differences with Constantinople, but unofficially – out of solidarity with Moscow.

This has earned the GOC some acknowledgement from Moscow. And it was, apparently, Moscow’s concessions that in the post-war period, Tbilisi managed to retain both of its parishes in Russia, and more importantly, to secure access to Akhalgori Municipality – a territory that fell inside the Russian-held area in Tskhinvali Region.

Despite its near-absolute ecclesial influence over the regions, Moscow has also repeatedly maintained that the issue of pastoral care of Abkhaz and South Ossetian populations has to be decided in close cooperation with GOC – the commitment – however nominal – that Georgian clerics have valued greatly.

At times, Tbilisi’s messages towards Moscow has been firm, particularly with respect to the Russian-style makeovers of medieval Georgian churches, but eventually the Georgian Patriarchate found the status quo acceptable, if not entirely comfortable. Short of any actual influence on the ground, the Georgian Patriarchate has accepted the Russian lead, pinning hopes on its personal connections with Russian clerics and taking Moscow’s nominal endowments as victories of their policies.

This is not to say that GOC has been entirely submissive to Moscow’s interests. When Russia recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for instance, GOC declared the Sokhumi-Abkhazia Eparchy a direct ecclesial jurisdiction of the Georgian Patriarch, and when they started pedaling on the necessity of providing pastoral care in Abkhazia, Tbilisi offered a smart solution – of sending a new bishop among its ranks who comes originally from Abkhazia – Metropolitan Seraphim (Jojua) in 2013 and Bishop Grigol (Katsia) in 2017.

But Tbilisi’s reliance on Moscow has come at a heavy cost. By entering dialogue with Moscow over Abkhazia and Tskhinvali, the Georgian Patriarchate has found itself trapped in a losing game – it has indirectly legitimized the Russian presence in the two regions and has also sidelined the Constantinople Patriarch, the only actor who could canonically intervene in disputed areas.

It has also weakened the Georgian positions abroad and tied Tbilisi’s hands on many international issues of the Orthodoxy. The question of Ukraine is a clear illustration of this – Tbilisi’s space for maneuver will continue shrinking so long as its clerics are willing to play by Russian rules of the game. 

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