Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Abkhaz Church Move Puts Moscow Patriarchate in Difficult Position

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 16 – Orthodox church leaders in Abkhazia yesterday declared itself no longer part of the Georgian Orthodox Church and announced their intention to re-establish an independent Abkhazian Church, an action that both the Georgian Church and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church rejected out of hand.
That the Georgian Church should do is entirely understandable, but the Moscow Patriarchate’s reasons are more complicated, reflecting both Kirill’s efforts to serve as a peacemaker between Russia and Georgia and Orthodox concerns that recognizing an independent Abkhazian church could set a dangerous precedent for Moscow in Ukraine.
If the Patriarchate were to do so, he and other Russian churchmen insist, that would undercut the Church’s teaching that canonical and political borders need not correspond and open the way for Ukrainians interested in creating a separate national church to demand that the Moscow Patriarchate cede its control over bishoprics and congregations there.
Because any such outcome would cost the Moscow Patriarchate not only nearly a third of its bishoprics and almost half of its congregations but undercut its ability to project influence across the post-Soviet space and beyond, the Moscow church opposes any step that might make such developments more likely.
But in this as in the ongoing fights over whether General Vlasov was a patriot or traitor and over whether Stalin and his system should be praised or criticized, the Moscow Patriarchate finds itself at odds with the Russian government and thus at risk of losing much of its hard-won influence on the powers that be (
And even as all that is taking place, Patriarch Kirill finds himself a victim of overenthusiastic supporters, whose painting of him in a church he recently visited as a saint with a halo found its way onto the Internet, even being briefly featured on the official site of the Moscow Patriarchate itself.
Yesterday, a meeting of all the clergy of the Sukhumi-Abkhaz eparchate took place in the Sukhumi Cathedral. It decided, Father Vissarion, the acting head of the eparchate, said that “to the extent the eparchate was subordinated to the Georgian Catholicate since 1943 and Abkhazia forcibly attached to the Georgian church, today we can declare out independence.”
He said that the restored Abkhaz national church will have two eparchates, one at Pitsunda where the cathedral will be and the other at Sukhumi and will seek both aid and recognition from the Moscow Patriarchate even though its earlier appeals for the latter have been rejected (
Georgian Patriarch Ilia II promptly rejected the declaration as “unserious” and said “we must not take it seriously” because “no one has the right to declare independence without the involvement of the head of the church (, a position repeated by other Georgians (
Today, officials of the Moscow Patriarchate followed suit. Father Igor Yakimchuk, the secretary of the Patriarchate’s External Affairs Department, dismissed the Abkhaz action by reiterating long-standing Church policy that “we respect the canonical borders of the Georgian Orthodox Church (
On Monday, in advance of the Abkhaz action, Archbishop Ilarion of Volokolamsk, who heads the External Affairs Department, told the Valdai Club that “in reality” the Georgian Church does not have power over Orthodox congregations and bishoprics in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
But he said that Moscow was not prepared to recognize the independence of these churches because were it to do so, “any political change would lead to church divisions.” That, he stressed, “is the foundation of our foreign policy relative to other Churches” and thus is not likely to change.
The primary reason for that position, of course, is the Patriarchate’s insistence that Russian Orthodox Churches on the territories of the post-Soviet states should be subordinate to it rather than become independent, a position that is especially critical regarding Ukraine where the Moscow Patriarchate controls so many congregations and bishoprics.
Another reason for not making a shift in this case, however, is Kirill’s hope to serve as a peacemaker between Moscow and Tbilisi. Eight days ago, he celebrated the liturgy in Moscow together with Metropolitan Nikolai of the Georgian Church and stressed that “no human anger could destroy the unity of the Church, including that of the Russian and Georgian ones.”
Shortly thereafter, religious affairs writer Pavel Krug reports in “NG-Religii” today, rumors began to circulate that Kirill intends to go to Georgia to try his hand at peacemaking. That would almost certainly have become impossible if the Moscow Patriarchate had recognized Abkhazia’s church as independence (
But if the Patriarchate is not prepared to recognize the Abkhaz Church as independent of the Georgian one for those two compelling reasons, both the Russian government and many Russian Orthodox activists would like to see a change in order to strengthen the claim Abkhazia and South Ossetia have for being independent states.
Kirill Frolov, an activist with the Union of Orthodox Citizens, said that the Moscow Church should not fear an analogy between Abkhazia and Ukraine because the two cases are “absolutely” different, since the Abkhaz Church has the support of the population while the backers of an autocephalous church in Ukraine don’t (
But even if that is the case – and the available evidence suggests that Frolov is overstating the support the Abkhaz Church has and understating the backing for an autocephalous church in Ukraine – Frolov’s argument makes canonical borders dependent not only political borders but on political support.
That is almost certainly a weaker position, except perhaps for propaganda purposes, than is the idea that canonical borders should follow political ones, and unless something unexpected happens, the Moscow Patriarchate is unlikely to accept either argument, despite the political consequences its hard line on this position may have.

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