6 June, 2019 Damis Polandov
PRAGUE — The President of the self-proclaimed republic of Abkhazia, Raul Khadjimba and the chairman of the church council of the Sukhum-Pitsunda Diocese, Priest Vissarion appealed to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill with a request not to extend the ban on Church serving of Archimandrite Dorotheos, who heads the Council of the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia. There is no response from the Russian Orthodox Church yet. We’re talking to Archimandrite Dorotheos (Dbar) about this response, what impact it can have on the ongoing church conflict and its background.
Damis Polandov: I got information that President Raul Khadjimba and Priest Vissarion have signed an appeal to the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill. They ask the ROC not to extend the ban on the ministry, which the Russian Orthodox Church imposed on you. Let’s first determine your expectations: what do you think, what will the reaction of the Russian Orthodox Church be like? Will the ROC insist on your repentance or they are not going to confront the authorities and Priest Vissarion, who represents the Sukhum-Pitsunda Diocese?
Archimandrite Dorotheos: As you know, many people asked me to write a penitent letter, but there are no results. I am not going to write any penitent letters. Therefore, if the answer from Moscow contains the request to repent then we will again go into a dead end. The current appeal was made on the basis of the text of the appeal that we had prepared a year ago together with representatives of the Sukhum-Pitsunda Diocese, but at that moment we wanted to send it to the Archbishop of Maykop and Adygea.
Unfortunately, my representative and the representative of Father Vissarion were already at the airport with this text, but then he (the archbishop) refused to accept them.
The appeal of authority and Father Vissarion is important because we were banned at his request and at the request of the clergy of the Sukhum-Pitsunda Diocese. Now the situation has changed. They again ask the patriarch to make a decision in favor, for the benefit of the Orthodox flock of Abkhazia, not on the basis of some formal canonical prescriptions, but remember about leniency in Christianity…
Damis Polandov: I see… I would like to clarify one question: today, the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia is located only in the New Athos Monastery where you live, are all other churches under the jurisdiction of the Sukhum-Pitsunda Diocese of the Abkhazian Orthodox Church?
Archimandrite Dorotheos: When we make an annual report, we point the monastery and temples of the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia in it. It includes not only the New Athos Monastery, but also all the objects which are located on the territory of the New Athos city and nearby villages, mainly the Ankhua village. It also includes the skete of St. John the Baptist, where we want to build a rehabilitation center; it also includes the remains of the ancient church of St. George, where we hold Church Services; it includes the Church of the Intercession on the territory of the city of New Athos, where we annually worship; it includes the church of Simon the Canaanite as well.
Damis Polandov: i.e. Is priest Vissarion and the priests who came with him interested in the upper part of the New Athos Monastery or do they have any attempts to enter the Church of Simon the Canaanite or other churches?
Archimandrite Dorotheos: Under our jurisdiction there were several churches in the territory of Abkhazia. They were built or restored by the New Athos Monastery, for example, the Gagra Church of St. Hypatius, the chapel of Pitsunda Saints, the Church of St. Eustathius in Ochamchyra, i.e. everything was built by us. After 2011, in order to avoid conflicts, we refused and said that we gave way these temples. Father Vissarion is mainly interested neither the Church of Simon the Canaanite, nor the Church of Intercession, but the upper complex of the New Athos Monastery. It includes the monastery, the central cathedral of St. Panteleimon and other churches on the territory of the monastery.
Damis Polandov: In your yesterday’s interview, you said when Sergey Shamba had been a prime minister, he had given religious objects to the Sukhum-Pitsunda Diocese. As I understand at that moment there was no church conflict in Abkhazia, i.e. was there a unified Orthodox community? When you were registering the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia, did you try to fix some of these objects to the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia? The behavior of authorities is very curious in this situation: there are two Orthodox communities, but they gave everything to one community and nothing to another one.
Archimandrite Dorotheos: When this decree was adopted, Sergey Mironovich was the prime minister at that moment and I wasn’t here, I did not take part in the development or implementation of this project. I was studying in Greece, but I know that at that time it was a unified clergy, i.e. there was no separation, it was 2010. But when these objects were given, at that moment the Sukhum-Pitsunda Diocese was registered as a public organization. i.e. There was no law on religion in Abkhazia; it was adopted only in 2013 at our request and insistence. In addition during the transfer and reception of objects, all necessary procedures and obligations were not completed. i. e. There is a person responsible for each church, because all the churches and monasteries that we are talking about included on the list of historical and cultural monuments of Abkhazia. In the religion law of 2013, we also included this point. I always insisted that not a single object in the territory of Abkhazia, in this case, the church and monastery, cannot be transferred into private property. They are the property of the state and our people, they are the cultural property and given for use if it is an Orthodox church, for the use of the Orthodox community, if it is a Catholic church for the use of Catholic community, etc. Therefore, these objects are neither the property of Father Vissarion, nor us.
The only thing that the state does not do and what it should do is conclude agreements with various religious organizations on the conditions for using these facilities. Due to the lack of such specific contracts for specific objects, today you can see remodels in the Ilor Church, Dranda Monastery, in the Dranda Cathedral – i.e. each priest does what he thinks right, completely uninterested in the fact that the state requires him to observe the norms of preserving the cultural object and he has no right to carry out any restoration works without state sanction.
When the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia was formed, the first question that we have raised since that time was that we said we were in the New Athos Monastery. i.e. The Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia was formed from the inhabitants of this monastery, the clergy of this monastery, so we asked the state to conclude an agreement with us on the use of this monastery. Until 2013, they used to say that there was no law on religion and they couldn’t register us as a Christian religious organization. Then we insisted on the adoption of the law on religion and an expert commission of 24 people was created from various state institutions, experts, the scientific community and after passing the expert commission, we got registration. We are monks, monks are registered in the monastery, i.e. they are not registered in apartments or private homes or in homes of parents. I am registered here in the New Athos Monastery, in the cell where I live and work, therefore the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia got registration at this address. But after registration, we again raised the question of signing an agreement with us.
Moreover, we, the Muslim community of Abkhazia, the Evangelical community of Abkhazia got this registration but Father Vissarion did not go through the expert commission. There was given a hidden order to the Ministry of Justice and he got registration. But no one saw this document. But he did not go through the entire legal procedure for registering the organization that he heads today.
Damis Polandov: But the opinion of parishioners has at least some significance, is it written anything about it in the law on religion?
Archimandrite Dorotheos: You have asked the correct question because unfortunately, many people have no idea of the church formation. i.e. Most of us perceive spirituality as something mystical and ethical etc. – but besides this thing there are certain rules of church formation and function, rules for monasteries and parishes etc. There are a huge number of different rules and they all were prepared a long time ago. The principle is very simple: for example, there is a church, it is just a building. A church community of this church is created from the inhabitants of the place where the church is located. First of all, the fate of this church community and the fate of this church and all sorts of decisions, including financial and administrative ones, are all determined by this church community. Members of the church community council are elected from the church community, they discuss any issue related to the life and activity of this church community.
As for the monasteries, there is a completely different system. The fate of the monastery, its life and activity are determined only by the inhabitants of the monastery, i.e. monks who can have a holy dignity or simple monks, only they determine what needs to be done with this monastery. Therefore, when Father Vissarion comes here and begins to say “this is our monastery, we will do what we want”, it is not right because the monks live here, including me as a monk. This is our home. But the monasteries carry out educational activity and we open our churches. According to the rules of monasteries, monasteries should be closed for tourists, parishioners and for any laymen. By the way, anyone who wanted to get to the monastery, always stood at the gates of the monastery and knocked for a long time and asked to let him in, especially if he wanted to be accepted into the fraternity. In our time, due to a change in the situation — we live in the 21st century and the concept of religious tourism has appeared etc. — we certainly have to be open today.
Once we asked to close the monastery for three days – on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, on fasting days for the monastery. At first they allowed us, then they said: “No, it doesn’t work out. On Wednesday and Friday it’s impossible, because tourists come and they complain.” Then they said: “Do not close on Monday too.” We were deprived of the opportunity to live in a closed monastery for at least one day. The monk must live away from worldly life but it is impossible. Therefore, we are focused on educational activity.Therefore our monastery churches become the churches of our parishioners and here at the moment we have three functioning churches. This is the central large cathedral, where we serve in summer, this is the church of St. Andrew, where we serve in winter and the Church of the Intercession, where we serve during the holidays. The main church of Simon the Canaanite is closed for restoration. Therefore, those people who came, during at least my service here, have been leading their church life for four or five years.
When we arrived, I returned from Greece, it was about 15-20 people, today it is about two hundred people, i.e. these are church people, they are always present at the Church Service, regularly take communion and confess, attend the lectures that we deliver here. These two hundred people and the brotherhood of ten people determine the fate of this monastery and my fate: whether they like Father Dorotheos as a priest or as a confessor, whether they like the Church Services I hold or dislike, everything can only be determined by brothers and my parishioners. The rest of the pilgrims, tourists, Father Vissarion and his clergy or part of his flock, all of them are guests who can come from one parish to another one for a while, for example, they can attend the monastery of Simon the Canaanite on the feast of St. Panteleimon, we can go to them in Kaman, on the feast of St. John Chrysostom or the martyr Basilisk. But this is the status of a guest and a pilgrim. But if you want to determine the fate of this monastery, you should be enrolled in a brotherhood, take monasticism, give up worldly life or you should become a parishioner of our monastery, only then you will have the right to express indignation or satisfaction, or change something.
Damis Polandov: Apparently, the question again arises that there is no bishop in Abkhazia and many issues cannot be resolved within the framework of any church hierarchy. In this case it is completely incomprehensible why Priest Vissarion should decide this question: to come and determine the fate of the monastery.
Archimandrite Dorotheos: You noted the most important thing. Neither parish churches, nor monasteries can function without the blessing of the ruling bishop. Our Church should be blessed by our bishop, not by Russian or Greek bishops. Our bishop should have the title of Abkhazian, Sukhum or Pitsunda bishop. And each priest is ordained by this bishop in the church where he should carry out his ministry. When he ordains a priest, there is such a procedure: the deacon comes out and says “Axios” (“worthy of” in Greek, this process is conducted in Greek in all the churches), asks people about the person they want to become a deacon or a priest, if the people answer “Worthy of”, three times: “Axios, Axios, Axios” – only in this case the bishop has the right to ordain this person; if people say “Not worthy of,” he has no right to ordain this priest. That is why I told you that only my flock determines my fate, like any other priest and the bishop listens to the opinion of his flock.
The second point, the most important from the point of view of church law: an ordained priest for a particular church or monastery should receive such a piece of cloth called the “antimins”, the main sacrament – the Divine Liturgy is carried out on it. The signature of the ruling bishop is put on this antimins, then this antimins is given to the priest. It gives the right to the priest to hold Church Services in the Church. But today each of us has different antimins. Someone got it in Greece, others in Russia, there are priests whose antimins dated back to the pre-revolutionary times, etc. All of these antimins do not have the signature of the ruling bishop and the instructions of the certain church. Therefore, from this point of view, not only Father Dorotheos or the Holy Metropolis of Abkhazia, but all church communities and monasteries on the territory of Abkhazia are canonically illegal and Church Services cannot be held. But we are again talking about the ecclesiastical leniency, because we are not to blame for being in this situation. The war created this situation, because before the war we were part of the Georgian Church, after the war the Georgian clergy, mainly, the metropolitan left Abkhazia. Since that time we haven’t had a bishop. In order not to lose our faith and not to stop the church life, we did our best. Therefore, the present existence of Father Vissarion, us and any other priest is not according to the canons of the Church, but exclusively according to the ecclesiastical leniency.
Damis Polandov: But the Russian Church should understand the complexity of the situation, should not it? I was surprised when the Russian Church tried to resolve the issue of the New Athos Monastery quickly many years ago and it became the reason of the current conflict’s rising. Do you think the Russian Church will act more carefully now? My question has a subtext: I am trying to understand whether Priest Vissarion acts according to his own understanding or there is a hidden plan behind his actions.
Archimandrite Dorotheos: I understand you. You have a question: will this appeal, what we expect, be made? On the one hand, of course, I would like to explain the situation to our people and our flock.
We do not expect that tomorrow the Russian Church will solve our problem and ordain the Abkhaz bishop, and all problems will be resolved. It will not happen until the Georgian Church determines its position regarding the newly created Ukrainian Local Church. But we do not demand to ordain a bishop for us, because we understand that this is impossible. We are talking about the real things which can be fulfilled by the patriarch (Kirill). The patriarch can suspend the ban on priesthood imposed on me and Father Andrey. This ban doesn’t matter anything for me, because my status is completely different. But it makes sense for Father Vissarion and his flock, for the pilgrims who come here, they think I’m a schismatic, that I’m forbidden, etc., I want to stop all these questions and it is really possible. But I cannot answer you the question: will it be done or not?
The next issue is who takes actions behind Father Vissarion in this matter. I said and repeat once again that the Russian Church is a general concept. The church itself, like any other local church, is sacred, there are completely different things that are related to the concept of spirituality, holiness, human salvation, this is one side. But there is a concept of the church as an institution where we constantly meet various church officials, random people in cowls, people who only harm the church, having high dignities, positions, etc. Therefore, the current leadership of the Russian Church, their understanding of the church life and their vision of solutions to various problems, including the Abkhaz one, always depends on what you hear and see endlessly in the Mass media: various disputes, attempts to return the church property or the endless involvement of the state in the construction of sometimes even unnecessary churches etc.
We are dealing with such people, who don’t concern about the spiritual atmosphere of the New Athos Monastery. They do not think of reviving the Abkhazian church or salvation of human souls. There are people among them who think about it, but unfortunately, they do not play an important role. The rest of the people think of real estate, foundation of pilgrimage centers, hotels, shrines that can be profitable. Surely, I have never excluded this factor and now I don’t do it. But I hope once they will realize that it doesn’t work out and they should think of spiritual things, the human suffering, that their actions defame Orthodoxy. It seems to me, now it’s probably worth thinking about such things than about material ones.
Source: Ekho Kavkaza, RFE/RL, Inc.