Ilia II, the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC), met in his Tbilisi residence, on November 2, with Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk (Russia). Metropolitan Hilarion is one of the most influential hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). He is a member of the Holy Synod and head of the external affairs department of the ROC (, accessed November 6). As special envoy of Patriarch Kirill—the head of the ROC—Metropolitan Hilarion gave the Georgian Church leader an invitation to Moscow to take part in the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the restoration of the Patriarchy in the Russian Church (, November 2). But the invitation to the Russian capital was not the main purpose of the ROC hierarch’s visit to Georgia. Unexpectedly for many, Metropolitan Hilarion additionally made tough statements against the Abkhaz separatists who “captured the Novyafon Cathedral [located on the grounds of a 19th century monastery in New Athos, a coastal Abkhazian town in Gadauta district].”
“The group that captured the New Athos Monastery and proclaimed itself to be almost an autocephalous church, still maintains its position; we must figure out how to settle the situation,” Metropolitan Hilarion proclaimed (, November 2). He recalled that during the last meeting of the patriarchs of Russia and Georgia, a decision was made to create a special group “to consider the situation in Abkhazia” (, November 2).
It appears that Metropolitan Hilarion’s remarks were in fact directed at Abkhaz priests and the Abkhazian authorities. The issue in question that the ROC metropolitan alluded to “is, first and foremost, the problem of the St. Simon the Canaanite church in New Athos [Novyafon Cathedral],” according to Nika Imnaishvili, an analyst with the independent Georgian news agency GHN (Author’s interview, November 4). Specifically, the church in New Athos is considered a shrine of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Unlike the Russian state, which recognized the independence of Abkhazia in 2008, the ROC still regards Abkhazia part of the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church. As such, the Cathedral in New Athos is part of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the GOC. Therefore, Moscow, for a long time, had been negotiating about the future of the Novyafon Cathedral with the Georgian Patriarchate. In 2012, the two parties reached a compromise: Patriarch Ilia II verbally (without signing any document) agreed to “double jurisdiction” over this church, after which Patriarch Kirill sent the ROC hierarch Hegumen Ephraim to the Cathedral. But this step ran counter to the interests of the state and church authorities of Abkhazia.
In 1993, with the help of the Russian army, Abkhaz armed groups first carried out ethnic cleansing of the predominantly Georgian population in Abkhazia (see , October 26), which included the expulaion of Georgian priests. At that point, ethnic-Abkhaz priest Father Vissarion (Aplia) proclaimed himself the head of an Abkhaz Orthodox Church (AOC) (, November 2).
Formally, the AOC claimed to continue to recognize the jurisdiction of Georgia’s Patriarch. But in fact, Father Vissarion many times appealed to the Russian Church to recognize the autocephaly of the AOC and direct its bishops. However, the Moscow Patriarchate could not take any firm decisions regarding the jurisdiction of the GOC, because it itself needed the support of the Georgian Orthodox Church against church separatism in Ukraine.
Father Vissarion’s repeated overtures to the ROC outraged local Abkhaz priests. Some of them broke away and announced the creation of a separate Holy Abkhaz Diocese (HAD), in May 2011. They chose Novyafon as the main cathedral of the HAD (, May 24, 2011). The head of the HAD, Archimandrite Father Dorofei (Dbar), then appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew with a request to recognize the autocephaly of the Abkhaz Church and appoint an Episcopal. Archimandrite Dorofei rebuked any need for cooperation with the ROC (, March 16, 2016), and leaders of the HAD forbade clergymen of the Russian Church from worshipping at the Novyafon Cathedral. Moreover, they blocked the ROC’s Hegumen Ephraim from coming to the New Athos Monastery. This caused great irritation in Moscow. Patriarch Kirill, in turn, urged Christians not to enter the Church in New Athos and not to pray there (, July 8, 2013). That appeal had limited effect: hundreds of thousands of Russian tourists and pilgrims continue to visit this church every year.
Previous attempts by Moscow to pressure the secular authorities of Abkhazia into forcing the HAD leaders to leave Novyafon Cathedral have repeatedly ended in failure. In early 2011, the president and prime minister of separatist Abkhazia respond that the Abkhazian parliament had transferred all the churches on the territory of the republic to the “Abkhazian Church.” And if the HAD refuses to submit to Father Vissarion and the AOC, the Abkhazian state “cannot intervene in the [internal] Church dispute and forcibly expel Father Dorofei and his supporters from the monastery” (, February 9, 2011).
Yet, Georgian experts consider this argument to be a political excuse: “The Abkhazian government considers the Abkhazian church, including the Novyafon Cathedral, an ‘instrument’ for promoting Abkhazia’s independence on the world stage,” GHN’s Imnaishvili noted. “It is the Abkhazian government that categorically opposes the transfer of Novyafon to Russia. But they cannot say this directly, so as not to provoke the wrath of Patriarch Kirill and President [Vladimir] Putin. That is why they [speak] about a ‘split inside the Abkhazian church’ and the ‘impossibility for the state to intervene in this split,’ ” Imnaishvili added (Author’s interview, November 4).
Against this background, the purpose of Metropolitan Hilarion’s recent visit to Tbilisi is clear: the Russian Church is warning Abkhazian “schismatics” that if they refuse to transfer control of the Novyafon Cathedral to the ROC, Moscow will conclude a union with Tbilisi and join forces against the “separatists.”
In this case, Russia will not rescind its recognition of Abkhazia’s independence, but it could impose economic sanctions and a blockade against the self-proclaimed republic. Abkhazia would then find itself totally isolated because it borders only Russia and Georgia. Taking into account the important role the ROC plays in the Kremlin’s foreign policy, such an “ultimatum” proclaimed by the Moscow Patriarchate is likely to have some teeth; but in this, Moscow will need the support and partnership of Tbilisi.
A final agreement on joint sanctions against the Abkhaz Church separatists could be reached on December 4, during Patriarch Ilia II’s scheduled visit to Moscow and his meeting with Patriarch Kirill. It is possible that during that trip, the head of the GOC will also hold talks on the Abkhazian issue and Russian-Georgian relations with the Russian president.