History of Christianity in Abkhazia – Video Presentation

History of Christianity in Abkhazia is the story of Christian monuments and churches, cathedrals and monasteries, as well as hagiography, which left a mark in Abkhazia (length – 26 min).
With the blessing of: the Chairman of the Council of the Holy Metropolitanate of Abkhazia Dorofei (Dbar) and the Father Superior of the Monastery of St. Simon the Zealot Hieromonk Andrei (Ampar)
Director: Sergei Yazvinskiy
Director of photography: Sergei Yazvinskiy, Vyacheslav Ivanov
Managers of the project: German Marshan, Tengiz Tarba

From the channel on Vimeo of the Orthodox Church in Abkhazia.

Find below the transcription of the presentation.

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Belief is an extraordinary facet of human nature – the most vital aspect of our existence. The inexhaustible and powerful origins of belief imbue every people of the earth.  But every origin has its own roots…

Christianity first came to Abkhazia in the earliest centuries, with two of Christ’s disciples – the apostles Andrew the First, and Simon the Canaanite. Later the monk Epiphanius of Jerusalem studied the route which Andrew took, then followed it himself. Epiphanius wrote of his researches: ‘Simon & Andrew went to Alania, to the town of Fust – and having taught the people and worked many miracles, they journeyed further to Abazgia where they came to the great city of Sebastopolis and taught the word of God. Andrew left Simon there, and went with his followers to Zikhia.

While preaching at Sebastopolis – the present-day Sukhum  – Simon the Canaanite incurred the wrath of the commander of the Roman garrison. The apostle was compelled to seek safety by hiding in a cave at Anakopia — the place now called New Athos.  There he lived, preached, and baptised the local people – the ancestors of today’s Abkhazians. He suffered a martyr’s death there as well — at the hands of Roman legionaries. Epiphanius writes that the location of St Simon the Canaanite’s tomb is at Nikopsia – a settlement located midway between the present towns of New Athos and Anapa. It had once been an ancient fortress named Anakopia.  During the 9th- and 10th centuries a chapel was built at the site of St Simon’s burial. The cavern where the Saint himself prayed is preserved to this day, and is a place of worship for many people.

A number of Byzantine sources report that the apostle Matthew also preached in Sebastopolis and died there. He had been known as one of Christ’s seventy followers.

The spread of Christianity in Abkhazia continued under the reign of the Emperor Diocletian – who fiercely persecuted Christians. Hither, to the outer fringes of their Empire, the Romans deported the Christians they disliked the most – evangelists, soldiers, and officials.

Christianity had spread amongst the army’s ranks, and amid the deported soldier-Christians was a man named  Orentios and his six brothers or companions – who were charged with refusing to make a pagan sacrifice.  The brothers were tortured but would not renounce their faith – so they were sent to Pitiund. We know that at least two were buried at Pitiund (today’s Pitsunda), while another lies buried at Ziganise (nowadays, the village of Gudaava).

Church records relate that the famous Church preceptor St John Chrysostom was similarly sentenced to exile in Pitiund in 407 AD. However, he died along the way, and was buried in a village called Comana in Abkhazia – said to be close to Sukhum.  His remains were later transferred to Constantinople.

Some information links the Holy Martyr St Eugene of Trabzon with Abkhazia, along with some of his associates – the Patriarch of Antioch, the heretic Peter of Gnafevs, and Bessa, one of the Emperor Justinian’s generals. Quite possibly there were others – but their names have been lost.

This was the period marks the birth of Christian communities in Abkhazia.

Early in the 4th century a Christian congregation gathered in Pitiund, led by Bishop Sophronius. Another of Pitiund’s bishops, Stratophil, took part in the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea  in 325 AD. His name figured there among the 318 bishops from the entire Christian world at that time. The Pitiund, or Pitsunda Bishopric is the oldest Christian congregation in the Caucasus – at that time connected to the Pontic Diocese , whose archbishop sat in Caesarea in Cappadocia. In the 5th Century another congregation gathered in Sebastopolis, led by Bishop Kerkoni – who appears in the records of the Fourth Ecumenical Council.  The first churches in Abkhazia appeared in Pitsunda – seven different chapels were built between the 4th century to 7th century. It was from Pitsunda that the doctrine of Christ began to spread to the heart of the country.

The conversion of the Abkhazian people had already ended by the middle of the 6th century, under the Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great.  The Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea recorded the events this way in his book called ‘The Gothic Wars’ — “Under the rule of then-reigning Emperor Justinian, relations with the Abkhazians took a softer tone. They received the Christian faith.” writes Procopius. “Emperor Justinian built a Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin for the Abkhazians — and sending forth priests there, he ensured that they enjoyed fully Christian lives”.

The Abasgian  Diocese was created, with its archbishopric at the city of Sebastopolis. The archbishops of Abasgia  were henceforth made subordinate to the Patriarch of Constantinople. Emperor Justinian went further, and established a special school at which children in Abkhazia could receive a church education. In this period Pitsunda lost its role as the primary religious centre in Abkhazia, and this primacy passed to Sebastopolis.

By the 7th century, the Diocese of Abasgia  comprised the bishoprics of Tsandripsh, Pitsunda, Anakopia, Sebastopolis, Tsibilium  and Gyuenos.  Each of these bishoprics had its own cathedral, and the Diocesan records of the Patriarchate of Constantinople rank the Abasgian  Diocese as thirty-fourth in size.

St Anastasius – a priest in Rome in the 7th century, and a student of celebrated Byzantine theologian Maximus The Confessor – wrote that Abkhazia was a “country of Christ-loving Abazgis”, and that their rulers were “Christ-loving Marshals”.

During the 8th century the Kingdom of Abkhazia came into being – along with a need for independent patriarchs to crown the Abkhaz monarchs. This required the establishment of an autocephalous church – but separation from Constantinople’s jurisdiction seemed impossible.  Thus the Abkhazian rulers sent a mission to Antioch – which was independent of Byzantine rule at that time. Macarius III, the Patriarch of Antioch, tells the story: “David, King of the Abkhazi , sent several persons to Antioch, requesting that they be ordained as bishops.  But alas! Robbers fell upon them along the way – stealing their gifts and killing all of them but two. These last two escaped their attackers and made their way to Antioch – where they recounted the story of their woes. They further mentioned that their country greatly lacked such a figure who might independently ordain the bishops of Abkhazia.”

Thus the Patriarch of Antioch convened a Diocesan Council, which resolved to ordain an Abkhazian Catholicos-Patriarch who could ordain bishops independently. And thus Ioann was ordained as the first Catholicos-Patriarch  of Abkhazia.

This event signifies the beginning of Christianity’s flowering in Abkhazia. The Kings of Abkhazia built churches which are still considered as remarkable monuments of religious architecture. The zenith of this construction – Cathedral in the village Mokva – was built under the orders of Abkhaz King Leon III.  The Cathedral in the village Bedia  was built during the reign of King Bagrat III, while the cathedral in the village Kumurdo, on the Armenian border, was built by the same Leon III.  The cathedrals at Lykhny, Bzyb, Pitsunda, Mokva, and Anakopia are the most outstanding examples of Abkhazian architecture — rooted in Byzantine tradition.  Since their consecration the liturgy in these cathedrals has been conducted in both Greek and Abkhazian.

Regrettably, none of the liturgical service-books of those times have been preserved. However, we have the 9th century evidence of the biography of St Cyril — teacher of the Slavs. He was called to Venice to the Council, and challenged to account for the basis upon which he had developed alphabets and translated the holy writ for the Slavic peoples. St Cyril defended the validity of his work, saying that there were many who served God in their own language — and needed books to do so. Among these peoples he specifically mentioned the Abkhazians. We also know that the Abkhazian Kings were in correspondence with the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nicholas Mystikos . There seems no doubt that the Abkhazian Church had its own liturgical service-books – which have been lost due to the subsequent decline and ruin of Christian culture.

During the latter part of the 10th century the Abkhazian kingdom was combined into the joint state of Abkhazians and Kartvelians, in which an increasingly dominant role was played by Kartvelian and Georgian religious culture – thus began the ‘dark ages’ for the history of Christianity in Abkhazia. Information about religious life in this period is extremely fragmented. In 1390 a new Patriarch was enthroned at Pitsunda, Catolikos Arsény – like his successors, he was a native of Western Georgia.

In 1454 the Turkish fleet moored off the coast of Sebastopolis. The Turks took the city, and renamed it Sukhum-Kale. Christianity was replaced by Islam, and the seat of the Abkhazian Church was transferred from Pitsunda to Kutaisi (modern Georgia).  During the succeeding centuries the Abkhazians had neither bishops nor parishes. Many of the shuttered Christian churches were looted and demolished by the Turks.

In the mid-17th century the Patriarch of Antioch Macarios III (Zaim) was passing through Abkhazia on a journey to Moscow – the account of his journey is well-preserved. The Duke of Abkhazia came to Macarios, and begged him to ordain a bishop for his people. The patriarch acceded the Duke’s request, and ordained an Abkhazian bishop.

In 1795 the last of the Abkhazian Patriarchs, Catholikos Maxim II, died at the Kiev Pechersk Lavra – and with him the Abkhazian Patriarchate at Pitsunda came to a final end.

The entire region of the Caucasus became a theater of war during the late 18th century. First the Russo-Turkish wars, and then the Caucasian War scarred the coast of the Black Sea. Church life became almost paralysed as a result. Due to these hostilities only three churches remained functioning – in Pitsunda, Lykhny, and Ilor. Church activities were only revived after the absorption of Abkhazia into the Russian Empire in 1810, and the creation of an Abkhazian diocese within the Greek-Russian Orthodox Church  in 1851. In 1869 Bishop Gabriel Imeretian succeeded to the Abkhazian bishopric, and he made strenuous efforts to revive Christian belief in Abkhazia.  New congregations were founded, and undertook extensive baptisms of Abkhazians. “The Society For The Restoration Of Orthodox Christianity in The Caucasus” built new churches in many Abkhazian villages. A new Abkhazian clergy was ordained.

In 1875 Russian monks from the monastery of Mount Athos in Greece began the construction of a monastery dedicated to St Simon the Canaanite in the town of Psyrtskha.  In 1888 Russian Emperor Alexander III paid a visit to the site of the monastery’s construction.  The walls of the central monastery were decorated with magnificent murals in honour of St Panteleimon – which have survived to this day. The monastery was completed before the turn of the century, becoming one of the largest religious centres on the Black Sea Coast.

In 1885 the Abkhazian Diocese was renamed the Sukhumi Diocese – a name it would keep until 1917.  During this period religious life in Abkhazia was especially active. Churches were opened and restored, spiritual and liturgical literature was translated and published, and religious communities were established – two male monasteries at New Athos and Dranda, and two convents in Komana and Mokva. Parish schools were opened under the auspices of the monasteries. A new generation of clergy appeared, and by 1917 more than sixty congregations of worshippers were meeting in churches across Abkhazia.

A result of the 1917 Russian Revolution was the formation of a Georgian Democratic Republic.  Following this, the Georgian Church broke away from the Russian Orthodox Church and declared its independence. In fact it maintained the status of an unrecognised independent church for the next 26 years.  By 1918 Abkhazia was under the occupation of Georgian Mensheviks, and the Georgian Church created a ‘Tskhum-Abkhazian’ Diocese.  However, when the Bolsheviks came to power, the life of the Church suffered a tragic decline – priests were deported or killed, churches and monasteries were closed down.

In 1943 the Russian Orthodox Church officially recognized the independence of the Autocephalous Georgian Church. All churches and church property within Abkhazia and belonging to the Sukhum-Abkhazian Church were absorbed into the Georgian Church, becoming its property and subordinate to it.  Thus the Abkhazian Church became subsidiary to Georgia only in 1943.

The Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1992-1993 was a harsh ordeal for the people of Abkhazia. During the war all of the Georgian clergy left Abkhazia. This left just four priests: Father Bessarion Apllia served in the Gudaut Church, Father Pavel Kharchenko in the Gagra Church, Abbot Vitaly Holub in the Sukhum cathedral church, and Father Peter Samsonov who remained as the rector of the Lykhny church.

In 1998 there were efforts to reform the ecclesiastical structure – the Charter was accepted for a Diocesan Council of the Sukhum-Abkhazian Diocese.  In the years after this war, more than ten clergy appeared.  They face a slow and difficult process – the revival of churches, and the return of congregations to the bosom of the Orthodox Church.  In 1994 the New Athos Monastery opened, and in 2001 the Koman Monastery.  In 2000 the Abkhazian Diocesan publishers “Stratophil” began to publish monographs about the Abkhazian Church, liturgical books, and a children’s Bible in Abkhazian.  In 2002 the New Athos Monastery opened a Religious specialized school , and in 2003 this was joined by the Regents School.  Divine worship in the Abkhazian language began once again. Today religious worship has been restored in more than 15 of Abkhazia’s 150 churches, and the clergy numbers a total of 15 priests.

In spite of all of its efforts, the Abkhazian Church continues to find itself in a difficult and contradictory position. The community is asking for more priests in churches – but there aren’t enough for every parish, due to the fact that since 1993 there has been no bishop to ordain additional priests. The Russian Orthodox Church has assisted in providing religious studies to candidates for the priesthood – but the Georgian Orthodox Church has no desire to solve the situation for the Abkhazian Church, while simultaneously maintaining its unique right to appoint priests in Abkhazia. The Russian Orthodox Church cannot ordain priests in Abkhazia, since it recognizes Abkhazia as the canonical territory of the Georgian Church.  The Abkhazian clergy have chosen not to address the Ecumenical Patriarch on this matter – which could potentially resolve the tendentious question for an Autocephalous Church of Abkhazia.

Arising from this, a Church & People’s Assembly was called into being on May 15th 2011 at the New Athos monastery. The initiative was jointly promoted by Archimandrite Dorofeos  (Dbar), abbot Father Andrew (Ampar), Archdeacon David (Sarsania), and the monks of the New Athos monastery.  The Assembly resolved to create the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia with its seat at Anakopia. The task of the Metropolis is the ordination of an Abkhazian Archbishop, who would by stages eventually become the Metropolitan bishop  of an Independent Abkhazian Orthodox Church.

Despite all of the difficulties and contradictions in contemporary society, the Abkhazian Church is being reborn!  The churches are full of worshipers, services are held, and along with the Slavic and Greek liturgy, the Abkhazian language is used in worship.  The clergy are kept extremely busy, as people continue to be born and to die. And just like life a thousand years ago, they have their faith, their hope, and their love…

(Source, HERE)




Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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