Staunton, Nov. 3 – Since 2008, the Moscow Patriarchate has pursued a two-track approach in its dealings with the Orthodox church in the breakaway Abkhaz republic, simultaneously refusing to challenge that republic’s status as part of the canonical territory of Georgia but sending in ever more of its own priests as a kind of hybrid advance.
(On that policy, which Moscow Patriarch Kirill has extended to South Ossetia as well, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2015/07/moscow-patriarchate-extends-abkhaz.html).
While Georgia is pleased by Russian recognition of these areas as part of its canonical territory although angry about Moscow’s dispatch of priests there, many among the Orthodox hierarchy in Abkhazia want Russia to go further. And their demands in that regard are now putting Moscow in a difficult position
Father Vissarion Aplia, head of the self-proclaimed Abkhaz Orthodox Church, has declared in a new message that the issue of the status of his church must be decided upon by Moscow and not by Tbilisi, given that the AOC “is not part of the Georgian Orthodox Church” (ng.ru/ng_religii/2021-11-02/10_518_status.html).
He says that his church is “the heir of the Abkhaz catholicate” and seeks the restoration of that status as an autocephalous denomination. Russia must play the key role in this since “the mission of restoring Orthodox Christianity in the Caucasus belongs [exclusively] to the Moscow Patriarchate.”
The Georgian church has rejected this appeal but called for talks, something the Abkhazian churchman has rejected because he says the Georgians can’t be trusted. But Aplia’s words create a problem for Moscow. It doesn’t want to challenge existing canonical territories or be involved in offering autocephaly to all and sundry.
Were the Moscow Patriarchate to do what Abkhazia wants, that would set a precedent that could put additional pressure on the Russian side to recognize the autocephaly of Ukraine and potentially that of Orthodox churches elsewhere in the former Soviet space, a step neither Kirill nor the Kremlin has any intention of taking.
But there is an additional dimension to this problem. Moscow insists that the Ecumenical Patriarch does not have the right to make a unilateral grant of autocephaly to any Orthodox church. In the view of the ROC MP, such a decision must be made by the historical Orthodox churches.
Indeed, Moscow’s opposition to Constantinople’s actions regarding Ukraine has been so strong that Patriarch Kirill has denounced the Ecumenical Patriarch as a splitter and broken relations with him. The Abkhaz churchman clearly thinks he has a chance to fish in these troubled waters,
Nothing may come of this issue immediately. After all, Moscow, Tbilisi and Constantinople have lived with Aplia’s activism for some time. But its resurfacing now is a timely reminder that resolving church issues generally and in Georgia in particular is no easy matter and will have an impact on the solution of broader political ones as well.
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