The leader of Orthodox Christians in Abkhazia, a breakaway region of Georgia, has declared that his diocese is breaking with the Patriarchate of Georgia in defiance of the Moscow Patriarchate - writes Sophia Kishkovsky.
The announcement of last week is the latest echo of conflict in the volatile Caucasus region since Russia's war with Georgia over South Ossetia in August 2008. That followed a string of armed conflicts leading back to the period after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The decision was made at a meeting of diocesan clergy in Sukhumi, capital of Abkhazia.
"Seventeen years ago Georgia committed, not only a military and political, but also spiritual aggression against Abkhazia," said the Rev Vissarion Apliaa, who has been the de facto leader of the Orthodox church in Abkhazia since the Georgian bishop could not safely attend meetings.
He was speaking on Abkhazian television on 16 September, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. "Abkhazia in no way can be an integral part of Georgia, and the Sukhum-Abkhazian Diocese that was within the Georgian Catholicosate ceased to exist," said Apliaa.
He stated that the church would be known as the Abkhazian Orthodox Church, and he told the RIA Novosti news agency he would seek the assistance of the Moscow Patriachate. But in statements on 16 September, officials of the Moscow Patriarchate said the Russian church supports the canonical borders of the Georgian church.
The Rev Nikolai Balashov, deputy chairperson of the Moscow Patriarchate's external church relations department, told RIA Novosti the Russsian Orthodox Church had yet to receive official information on the issue.
"At the same time, we remain convinced that the complex question of the pastoral care of Orthodox believers in Abkhazia must be resolved in a process of fraternal consultations between representatives of the Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches," said Balashov.
After President Dmitri Medvedev announced in August that Russia was recognising the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Moscow Patriarchate stressed that canonical borders cannot be dictated by changes in political borders.
To date only Nicaragua and Venezuela have recognised the political independence of Georgia's breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
The Georgian Orthodox Church said on 16 September that the world's canonical Orthodox churches would not recognise the independence of the Abkhazian church.
Patriarch Ilia of the Georgian Orthodox Church told reporters in Tbilisi that the Abkhazian decision could not be taken seriously. "We should not take it into consideration," he said, according to the GeoHotNews agency. "Nobody has a right to declare independence without the Mother Church."
During the Russian-Georgian war in 2008, both the late Patriarch Aleksei II and Patriarch Ilia lamented the bloodshed and called for peace, stressing a common Orthodox Christian heritage. Patriarch Kirill I, Aleksei's successor, has carried on the line of reconciliation.
Metropolitan Nikoloz said, "It is impossible to divide our peoples, it is impossible to divide our churches."
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]