While not recognized by any “canonical” Orthodox Church, the independent national Orthodox Churches created in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the past twenty years are benefiting from political considerations that go far beyond themselves and—in the case of South Ossetia—from the willingness of foreign Orthodox groups to offer them assistance, writes Kimitaka Matsuzato in the Journal of Church & State (Spring 2010).
Once part of Georgia, both territories seceded, believing their identities were threatened by Georgian nationalism—South Ossetia (with a population of 70,000) in 1990 and Abkhazia (with 200,000) in 1992. In both cases, this led to wars between the seceding entities and Georgia, the last one in 2008 in South Ossetia. They received support and recognition from Russia and several other countries. But the Moscow Patriarchate refused to extend the borders of its “canonical territory” to include the Orthodox population of these small states.
The church insists that they remain in the territory of the Orthodox Church of Georgia and that they find a solution through negotiations with the Georgian church authorities. There are good reasons for this attitude: the Russian church does not want to weaken its own position on the issues of Ukraine and Moldova, where it faces competition by Ukrainian autocephalists, in the first case, and by a Romanian-affiliated diocese, in the second case.
While both Abkhaz and South Ossetian Orthodox would have welcomed an affiliation with the Moscow Patriarchate, the groups have sought to establish their own church structures as an alternative. They have followed different strategies. In Abkhazia, those pressing for independence were until recently satisfied with the attempt to establish an Abkhazian Diocese (although they have claimed since 2009 to have recreated an ancient, local Catholicosate, thus marking a decisive break with the church in Georgia).
More importantly, they are only looking for a solution from official Orthodox churches, avoiding groups in the grey zone of various Orthodox schisms. The consequence, however, is that they have no bishop to this day, a severe limitation for the future prospects of an Orthodox community. In contrast, the South Ossetian Orthodox activists, facing the refusal of the Russian Orthodox Church to incorporate them in 1992, turned first to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. While they were accepted, divisions within that body regarding rapprochement with Moscow led the South Ossetians to turn to the “moderate” branch of Greek Old Calendarists (i.e. conservative Greek Orthodox who refused the introduction of the new church calendar in 1924), where they were accepted in 2003.
The Greek Old Calendarists consecrated the leader of the South Ossetian group as a bishop in 2005. This was obviously not approved by the Moscow Patriarchate; church officials (including the new Russian patriarch, Metropolitan Kirill) have criticized this action. Matsuzato notes that a number of Russian clergy are sympathetic to the South Ossetians’ and Abkhazians’ aspirations to religious independence from Georgia; they were also impressed by the courage of South Ossetian clergy during the August 2008 war with Georgia. The case of Abkhazia and South Ossetia provides a quite interesting case study of the dynamics of Orthodox schisms today, as well of the ways in which minor groups manage to find their ways of playing with wider issues that have little to do with their own immediate concerns.
(Journal of Church & State, Oxford Journals, 2001 Evans Road, Cary, NC 27513, USA)