September 14, 2008 (the date of publication in Russian)

Elena Maler-Matyazova


Georgian Orthodoxy – for Georgians only?

The current confrontation between Georgia and two breakaway autonomies, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, unfolding to the highest extent during this summer and culminating in an artillery assault on South Ossetian towns and villages, has got not only a territorial and ethnic but also a religious aspect. The political contradictions between Tbilisi, Sukhumi and Tskhinvali coincided with a serious ecclesiastical confrontation.

Though Abkhazia and South Ossetia de jure belong to the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church, ecclesiastical rule from Tbilisi has not been de facto carried out for over fifteen years. The eparchies of South Ossetia and Abkhazia have been insisting on independence from the Georgian Patriarchy. The origin of this tendency dates back to ancient history of the Orthodox communities of Transcaucasia.



During centuries before, the Orthodox community of the Black Sea coastline of Transcaucasia was divided by a number of ecclesiastical entities, their canonical status and territory being repeatedly changed. Abkhazia and Ossetia belonged to the north-eastern periphery of the Byzantine Empire, and the first religious communities, emerging on these territories, were independent from the Georgian Orthodox Church and belonged to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchy of Constantinople. The first eparchy of Abkhazia, Parichia Pitiunta (the Parish of Pitsunda), was founded by Bishop Stratophilus, who assisted at the Nicene Council (325). In the VI century, under the reign of Emperor Justinian, the Eparchy of Abkhazia was established in Sebastopolis (Sukhum).

In its turn, the Orthodox community of Ossetia belonged to the jurisdiction of the Holy Alanian Metropoly under the auspices of the Patriarchy of Constantinople. In the X century, it was established as the Alanian Eparchy.

Between the X and the XIII centuries, the Abkhazian Eparchy was a part of the Georgian Church. This was the time of the strongest independent statehood of Kartvels (Georgians) and Abkhazians. In the XIV century, the political fragmentation of Georgia with its division into the Western and Eastern Kingdoms resulted in foundation of the Abkhazian Catholicosate, independent from the Georgian Catholicosate. The Catholicos of Georgia had his see in the Monastery of Mtskheta, with a title of Catholicos of Kartali, Kakhetia and Tiflis, while the Catholicos of Abkhazia was based first in Pitsunda, later in Kutaisi, under the title of Catholicos of Abkhazia and Imeretia. This coexistence continued until the 1811 Chart on Georgia's integration into Russia, signed by King Georgius XIII. In its turn, the Alanian Eparchy existed as an independent entity until the XVI century, subsequently being integrated into the Georgian Orthodox Church.

In the beginning of the XIX century, Georgia was in fact separated into a multitude of small princedoms. Similarly, the religious community was divided into a number of minor eparchies, with 10-15 parishes in each of them. The unification with Russia rescued not only the population but also the religious community from further division and extinction under the pressure from Islam. Since 1811, the Georgian Orthodox community was a part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The Moscow Patriarchy initiated a huge missionary effort in Abkhazia and Ossetia, where a significant share of the population was Pagan or Zoroastrian. In 1814, the Sacred Synod re-established the Ossetian Theological Commission, transformed in 1860 into the Society for Re-Estabishing of Orthodoxy in the Caucasus. The whole community was now run by the Georgian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Since 1851, the Eparchy of Abkhazia was founded under its auspices.

The decision of the Georgian Orthodox Church to become independent from Moscow was made public in March 1917, immediately after the abdication of the Russian Emperor. However, this initiative was not approved by the Abkhazian and Ossetian communities, and already in a month, the Eparchial Congress of Vladikavkaz decided to establish an independent Ossetian Eparchy. In May 1917 in Sukhum, the congress of Abkhazian clergy ruled to found an independent Orthodox Church of Abkhazia.

At that time, the Moscow Patriarchy, as well as the Provisional Government of Russia, was not prepared to discuss the split. Officially, the issue was postponed until the next National Assembly that did not take place due to the Bolshevist Revolution. However, in a letter to Prot. Georgy Golubkov, Russian Patriarch Tikhon approved the idea of establishing the Eparchy of Abkhazia as a part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The civil war in Russian in 1918-20 was used by the Menshevist government of Georgia not only for political but also for ecclesiastical separation from Russian influence. After the newly-founded Georgian Army occupied Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian Church established eparchies of its own, discharging all the ethnic Russian theologians, opened in XIX century by the Russian Synod and still legally belonging to it.

Thus, the efforts of the Russian Church to save the Orthodox community of Georgia from complete extinction were paid a century later with overtake of property and assaults on Russian priests who still continued to patronized a few parishes in the area.

Subsequently, the re-established Moscow Patriarchy officially ceased communication with the Georgian Orthodox Church, and this division lasted until 1943.

The whole historical background of the eparchies of Transcaucasia indicates that the ecclesiastical bodies of Abkhazia and Ossetia developed independently for the Georgian Orthodoxy. The events of 1917, when Ossetian and Abkhazian believers refused to comply with the schismatic initiative of the Georgian Church, are most remarkable. The conflict of that time, not solved by the National Assembly due to political reasons, requires reconsideration and resolution today.



The current political conflict in the Caucasus, emerging in the period of Gorbachov's "perestroika" and disintegration of the Soviet Union, reproduced the pattern of 1917, with similar political, ethnic, and religious confrontation in the area.

The conflict with Abkhazia and South Ossetia emerged immediately after the declaration of Georgia's independence. From the legal standpoint, the two republics had joined the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in an autonomous status, and thus had a right to independently decide their own status in case of the Soviet Union's reorganization. However, Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia deliberately ruled to annihilate the status of autonomies, and the subsequently developing conflict resulted in bloody warfare in 1992.

The ceasefire, eventually reached by the Russian peacekeeping effort, lasted for sixteen years. Attempts of political reconciliation were undertaken by Russia, as well as international institutions. In 2002, the Abkhazian leadership admitted that reunification could be possible in a matter of a century, after the memory of the 1992 war fades away. However, the government of Mikhail Saakashvili, arriving to power with direct and massive backing from the United States, re-introduced the same policy towards the breakaway autonomies as that pursued by Gamsakhurdia. In their turn, the governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia organized public referendums, in which the majority of the people voted for independence from Georgia and integration into Russia. In the same period, thousands of South Ossetians and Abkhazians applied for Russian citizenship. Contrary to current reports of Western media, the Russian consulates satisfied not more than a half of these applications.

What was the Orthodox Church of Georgia doing to foster reconciliation and to prevent warfare in the region? In fact, its activity was not at all oriented towards peace, though the Moscow Patriarchy, during international meetings with Orthodox clergy, repeatedly expressed its concern over the rising mood of ethnic hatred between the peoples, officially pastored by the Catholicos of Georgia.



Declaring its ecclesiastic rights for the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian Orthodox clergy did not bother to pastor the population of Abkhazia and South Ossetia already since 1990. The Georgian clergy deliberately officiated rites exceptionally in Georgian language. Theological literature was published also only in Georgian. No new churches were opened in the autonomies, where priests pastor only the Georgian-populated enclaves.

During the 1992 warfare, the Georgian Orthodox Church did not contribute to attempts of reconciliation of Christian peoples. Metropolitan David Chkadua, in his TV address on the occasion of the takeover of Sukhum city by the Georgian military, urged to exterminate Abkhazians. His successor, Metropolitan Daniel Datuashvili, also wholly supported the militaristic policy of Tbilisi and delivered not a single address to the Abkhazian parish. In 1993, when Sukhum was regained by the Abkhazian troops, the Metropolitan escaped to Georgia, thus refusing to pastor the Abkhazian believers. The apotheosis of Georgian nationalism could be illustrated with the words of Catholicos Ilia II: "Anyone who kills a Georgian, regardless from the fault of the killed person, is declared an enemy of the Georgian people and is subject for an anathema.

The viewpoint and behavior of the Georgian Patriarchy did not change, unfortunately, after the adventurist and brutal assault of the Georgian troops on the civilians of South Ossetia. Patriarch Ilia II, similarly to major Western media, failed to notice the brutality, but when Russia had to protect the civilians, he complained that "Russia is bombing the co-religious Georgia".

It is noteworthy that the Georgian Patriarchy even did not condemn the destruction of unique relics of Ossetian history and culture, including Orthodox churches. The list of the ruined or damaged churches includes the VIII-century Church of St. George in Cauthus, the XVIII-century Khvtismshobeli Church, St. Nicholas Church, and Assumption Church.

Today, the damage is being analyzed and estimated by the joint commission of the Russian Agency of Culture Preservation and the CIS Inter-Government Fund of Humanitarian Cooperation. Many experts have unambiguously stated that the military forces of Georgia have committed a "gross violation of the norms and the spirit of the Hague Convention on Protection of Cultural Heritage". Specialists make conclusions of an attempt of cultural genocide. Meanwhile, the Georgian Patriarchy has not expressed a bit of concern, not speaking of denunciation, of the barbarian demolition of Orthodox churches.

(To be continued)

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