An Intra-Orthodox Schism

November 23, 2021

The small Caucasian republic of Abkhazia is the scene of a bitter conflict between various Orthodox churches, following the power vacuum caused by the war in which the country gained independence from Georgia in the 1990s.

Since the schism of 1054, which separated the Orthodox from the Catholic Church, intra-Orthodox schisms have been numerous.

The best known today is the breakdown of communion between the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who holds the primacy of honor among the Orthodox, and the Patriarch of Moscow, who has under his authority the majority of the Orthodox of the world.

This break in relations between the two patriarchs came on the occasion of another schism, when Ukraine became ecclesiastically independent from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018, with the support of Constantinople.

However, these are not the only schisms that currently affect Orthodoxy. Another example is the Caucasian Republic of Abkhazia, located between Russia and Georgia.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the territory of Abkhazia was reunited with the newly independent Georgia. A year later, however, the Abkhazians declared themselves independent and waged war against Georgia, with support from Russia.

Thirty years and two wars later, Abkhazia is still independent, but only five countries in the world officially recognize this independence (Russia, Syria, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru).

This small country, whose area is similar to a French province like Aveyron or Saône-et-Loire - or 1/5th the area of ​​Switzerland - has a population of some 250,000 inhabitants, of whom a little over half are Orthodox.

Due to the special relationship that traditionally exists between Orthodox churches and civil authorities, the changing political status of Abkhazia has influenced its position within the Orthodox church organization.

After the 1992 war, the popes of Georgian origin fled Abkhazia or were expelled and only one priest remained, who was Abkhaz: Vissarion Apliaa. Under these circumstances, Vissarion became the de facto leader of the Abkhaz Orthodox, who organized themselves into an eparchy (the eastern equivalent of a diocese). Gradually some priests came from Russia and other Abkhaz priests were ordained.

In 2009, the eparchy unilaterally declared its independence from the Georgian Patriarchate. Despite Georgian protests, Vissarion proclaimed himself the Catholicos of Abkhazia, in an attempt to resuscitate the ancient Abkhazian Catholicate, an Orthodox ecclesiastical demarcation that existed between the 15th and 19th centuries, until the Russian conquest.

Two years later, in 2011, the Abkhaz government officially recognized the Abkhaz Orthodox Church and ceded control of Orthodox churches, cathedrals, and monasteries in Abkhaz territory. Pitsunda Cathedral became the seat of the new Catholicate and two eparchies were formed, Pitsunda and Sukhumi, with a total of nine parishes and two monasteries.

From the outset, the Georgian Patriarchate categorically rejected the independence of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church. While Russia is politically supportive of the Abkhaz rebels, the Moscow Patriarchate officially supports the Georgian Patriarchate's position as it needs its support to end the schism in Ukraine, which is much more important than the Abkhaz schism.

A new schism has arisen within the Abkhaz schism: a group of Russian and Abkhaz priests, led by Archimandrite Dorotheos Dbar, created the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia, rival of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church and directly dependent on the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This group is related to the New Athos monastery, where Dorothea was a monk.

The New Athos Monastery is a 19th century foundation, made by Russian Orthodox monks who fled Mount Athos, in Greece, and hosted by Tsar Alexander III, who provided for its construction. Occupied by the Soviet regime, it was returned to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1994.

In February 2021, the Abkhaz Orthodox Church temporarily suspended religious services across the country as a measure of pressure to formally gain independence from the Georgian Patriarchate.

Vissarion told Abkhaz television that during World War II the Abkhazians were illegitimately incorporated into the Georgian Patriarchate, which was not recognized by Constantinople until half a century later. He also claimed that the situation of the last thirty years was “impossible.”

Recently, Vissarion again called on the Patriarchs of Moscow and Georgia to recognize the independence or autocephaly of the Abkhaz Orthodox Church. Last October, the Georgian Patriarch invited Vissarion to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, for talks.

But Vissarion rejected the invitation, saying it was “another ruse” and that the issue of the Abkhaz church could only be resolved by Russia, a country considered more favorable to the requested autocephaly.

For now, the schism continues and three entities are vying for control of the Abkhaz Orthodox: the Georgian Patriarchate, which continues to regard Abkhazia as one of its eparchies, although it has no effective presence in the country.

The Abkhazian Orthodox Church, led by Vissarion, is autocephalous in principle, but heavily dependent on Moscow in practice.

And the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia, headed by Dorotheos is dependent on the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.

The situation is much the same as in Ukraine, where three Orthodox churches are arguing:

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which depends on Moscow. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, founded in 2018, which was recognized by Constantinople, resulting in the separation between Moscow and Constantinople. And finally the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Patriarchate of Kiev, of Metropolitan Philaret who refuses to return to the previous one.