The ‘Ukrainian way’ for the Abkhaz Church, and what choices does the Georgian Church have in this difficult situation?
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s recent independence from Moscow has posed quite a conundrum for the Georgian Church. Neither options – recognition or non-recognition thereof – can lead to anything good.
No matter what choice is made, there will be another subtext for the Georgian Orthodox Church – in reality more important for it than the fate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The fact is, any of the solutions automatically carries with it the potential to thaw the church problem in Abkhazia.
Between Moscow and Constantinople
In 2008, as a result of the war in South Ossetia, Russia recognized Abkhazia’s statehood. But this act had no effect on the church question. The Russian Orthodox Church continues to recognize the Abkhaz Church as a canonical part of the Georgian Church.
Meanwhile, since the end of the Georgian-Abkhaz war in 1992–1993, the Abkhaz Church has been without episcopal attention, since Georgian priests cannot travel to Abkhazia – for obvious reasons.
During this period, the resulting vacuum has been filled by two church structures, which are both as yet not recognized by anyone, and do not get along well with one another: the Abkhaz Orthodox Church, headed by Father Vissarion (Aplia), and the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia, led by Father Dorotheos (Dbar).
The Abkhazian Orthodox Church
The head of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church, Father Vissarion, was ordained by Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II before the beginning of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict in the 1990s.
Vissarion has the advantage of being particularly favored by the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church. He unilaterally broke off relations with the Georgian Church. The churches subordinate to him are ministered exclusively by Russian priests, and in prayers they do not mention the Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch, but rather the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill.
The Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia
Father Dorotheos, on the contrary, was at one time ordained by the Russian Orthodox Church. However, his relations with Moscow soured.
In the mid-2000s, Dorotheos left for Greece and was enrolled at the Holy Metropolis of Goumenissa of the Church of Greece. He then graduated from the Faculty of Theology of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
In April 2011, the Church of Greece ordained Father Dorotheos to the rank of Archimandrite, after which he returned to his homeland.
A month later, he held a national-ecclesiastic assembly at the New Athos monastery, the outcome of which was the creation of the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia.
Moscow did not appreciate Father Dorotheos’s willfulness. A few days later, by decree of Tikhon, Bishop of Maykop and Adyghe, he was forbidden to serve for a year. This ban was later extended.
Father Dorotheos then officially broke off relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.
The conflicted relationship of the two church structures
The relationship between these two church structures was very complex from the start. For a long time they were openly hostile to one another.
However, something happened about one year ago: Father Dorotheos visited Father Vissarion who was undergoing treatment in a Moscow clinic. After that, there was a marked warming of the relationship.
However, each of the parties’ views on how the Abkhaz Church question should be resolved remained the same.
Father Vissarion is still counting on the Russian Orthodox Church alone.
Father Dorotheos believes that it is necessary to achieve autocephaly through Constantinople for the Abkhaz Church – that is, go the so-called “Ukrainian way”.
Once the status quo is broken
Before the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the idea of Abkhaz autocephaly seemed clearly utopian.
While the Ecumenical Patriarch has recognized several churches over the past quarter of the century, the Moscow Patriarchate’s monopoly on the post-Soviet space has been tacitly preserved.
The Russian Orthodox Church did not even consider the idea of the Abkhaz autocephaly, since this would mean having to quarrel with the Georgian Church, with which they have traditionally had excellent relations.
However, now that the status quo has been broken, there is hope for the Abkhaz Church. Father Dorotheos and Father Vissarion are well aware of this. They make almost no comment on the situation, so as not to damage the situation.
The Georgian bishops would also happily keep quiet, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to do so. In Georgia, Kiev, and Constantinople people are waiting for their decision. And it seems that, no matter what they choose, it will be a dead end for the Georgian Church.
On the one hand, the Russian Orthodox Church seems to be unambiguously hinting to the Georgian bishops that, if the Georgian Orthodox Church recognizes the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, then it (the Georgian) will automatically cease to be Orthodox from the point of view of the Russian Church.
And then the Moscow Patriarchate has a viable alternative to recognize the Abkhaz Church and take it under its wing.
On the other hand, the Ecumenical Patriarch has great power. He granted Ukraine a tomos in spite of serious resistance from Moscow. He can give the same to Abkhazia, where there is much less pressure, and there is a concrete reason: for more than a quarter century the territory of Abkhazia has essentially not been under the control of any church, and this is disorderly. Of course, neither option would be feasible in the short term. However, the status quo is broken, and this means there are possibilities.
There is, however, a third option, which is almost never mentioned, but has a right to life. And it is essentially less painful for the Georgian side. The Georgian Orthodox Church itself might grant the Abkhazians autocephaly and become the mother church for this new establishment, with all the responsibilities from this action. That is, it might repeat the scenario which took shape in 1943 when the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the Georgian Orthodox Church.
No matter how the situation develops, no one is expecting a quick resolution of the “Abkhaz” Church situation. The process might drag on for years or decades.
It’s unlikely that anyone now can predict the outcome and/or timeframe for its resolution. However, it is an indisputable fact that the recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has broken the impasse around this question.