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The religious situation in Abkhazia, by Aleksandr Krylov

25 February 1998 - Keston News Service

From July to November 1997 the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted field research in Abkhazia as part of project 97-01-18011 'National Communities in Abkhazia: the Current Situation' with the financial support of the Russian Humanitarian Science Fund. The aim of the project was to illustrate the particularities of the situation of the local population as a whole, as well as of all national communities living in Abkhazia in the post-Soviet period, during which the republic once again became an unrecognised state after the bitter Georgian-Abkhazian War of 1992-93, and its citizens became isolated from the rest of the world once Russia introduced 'special' conditions on the Russian-Abkhazian border in December 1994.

One of the aspects of the work was the distribution of questionnaires among the population of north-west Abkhazia, which is historically known as the Bzyb region, as the River Bzyb runs through it. Questionnaires were given out in the Gagra and Gadauta regions of Abkhazia. Most were distributed in schools and completed by the parents of the children in nine participating schools in the cities of Gagra and Gadauta, the towns of Pitsunda, Rybzavod and Tsandripsh and the villages of Achandara and Lykhny. Some parents of participants live in villages near these places which do not have their own schools, and this meant that the habitation area of the population filling in the questionnaires could be significantly increased. However, the distribution of the questionnaires in schools led to the loss of a significant number of the 3000 printed during distribution and collection. Many had to be rejected during subsequent processing as either they had been filled in by the pupils themselves or several copies had been filled in by the same people. A typical example saw a mother of several children filling in all the questionnaires brought home from school so that only one could be included in the final statistics. A poll was conducted among local inhabitants of various places at the same time as the questionnaire was distributed in schools, and questionnaires were also given to participants in the Gagra branch of New Circassian Industry and Humanities College.

Two sorts of questionnaire were used in the poll. The first consisted of 15 questions and was intended for all citizens of Abkhazia. The second had six questions and was intended only for native Abkhazians. Its aim was to clarify the degree of influence of family and clan structures and traditional pre-Christian religion. It asked the following of the respondent: family; clan (abiparye); degree of participation in family and clan gatherings; existence of one's own family or clan shrine; incidents in which the respondent or his or her relatives had appealed to traditional shrines or anykha; what results were obtained after such appeals.

The questionnaire was strictly voluntary. Questionnaires of the first type were anonymous and did not ask for the precise address of the respondent, who only indicated his or her home city, town or village. Respondents were entirely free to fill in or not to fill in the questionnaire or to refuse to answer any of the questions it contained. 1448 respondents of 23 nationalities aged 15-87 responded to the first questionnaire Of these there were 852 Abkhazians, 369 Armenians, 142 Russians, 30 Georgians, 17 Ukrainians, eight Megrels, five Osseians, five Greeks, three Turks, two Circassians, two Belarussians, two Germans, two Roma, one Adyg, one Azeri, one Dargin, one Laz, one Latvian, one Lithuanian, one Pole, one Tatar and one Estonian. 852 respondents of Abkhazian nationality answered the second questionnaire.

Although the population of Abkhazia remains multinational there have been great changes in its size and ethnic composition during the post-Soviet period. According to the data of the last all-Union census in 1989, there were 525,100 people of 100 different nationalities living in Abkhazia. (Such ethnic diversity in a small autonomous region seemed to embody the friendship of all Soviet peoples and was a source of pride for the authorities and the local population.) The population of Abkhazia decreased sharply as a result of the dramatic events following the break up of the Soviet Union. According to official statistics for 1995, there were 91,162 Abkhazians, 89,928 Georgians, 61,962 Armenians, 51,573 Russians, 8,177 Ukrainians, 3,535 Greeks and 6,947 representatives of other nationalities living in Abkhazia. Despite the small rise in the population in 1995 following the partial return of Megrels to the Gal region, most of the nationalities registered in Soviet times have either emigrated completely or else are present only in insignificant numbers.

With the help of the questionnaire we can judge the denominational composition of the population of Abkhazia today as well as particular features of religious consciousness among the local population. In answering the question on religious affiliation, 55 per cent of respondents said they were Christian, 17 per cent Muslim, and 22 per cent nonbelievers or individuals who had difficulty defining their religious affiliation (of which, however, most of the latter indicated their 'positive' attitude to religion or acceptance of it, and several wrote that they were thinking about becoming baptised or 'believed' without indicating their religious affiliation). Only three per cent of respondents said they were avowed atheists and two per cent said they were pagans adhering to 'Abkhazian beliefs' or had faith in the traditional Abkhazian shrine - the anykha.

The high level of religiosity among the population and the tiny number of atheists may seem surprising in a society in which the rejection of religion was official doctrine for many decades. However, respondents' identification of themselves with one confession or another, although significant in itself, does not mean that they are truly devout believers, and the role of religion, in Abkhazia as in other post-Soviet states, must not be overestimated.

Under the Soviet regime most people completely lost all basic knowledge about the fundamentals of religion. During the period of social cataclysm accompanying the break-up of the Soviet Union, and especially during the Georgian-Abkhazian War, many Abkhazians perfectly naturally sought solace in religion. A significant number were baptised, but for most the acceptance of Christianity was entirely superficial. Today the number of parishioners attending services is quite insignificant, even on important feast days. Judging by our conversations with members of the clergy and many of the newly-baptised, most of the latter attend church extremely rarely or not at all, do not read the Bible and are Christians nominally.

The situation is the same as regards Islam: to this day there is not one mosque in Abkhazia. The majority of nominal Muslims do not have any knowledge whatsoever of the Quran and do not show any interest in studying it. The ritual of circumcision not only does not take place but is considered completely unnecessary, unnatural and even shameful. There are no dietary restrictions and those who identify themselves as Muslims eat pork and other foods forbidden to 'true orthodox' believers along with other Abkhazians. The only Abkhazian citizens who can be considered true Muslims are thus the descendants of Abkhazian makhajirs who have returned to their homeland from various countries of the Near and Middle East, and these make up a quite insignificant proportion of the local population.

However, the second questionnaire testifies to the persistent strong influence of traditional, pre-Christian religion. 199 people, or 47.4 per cent, of the 420 Abkhazians who defined themselves as Christians indicated that they or their relatives had a traditional shrine or turned to such shrines for help. Among representatives of other confessions and nonbelievers this figure was: 163, or 66.5 per cent, of 245 Muslims; 34, or 47.2 per cent, of the 72 who found it difficult to define their religious affiliation; 27, or 37.5 per cent of 72 nonbelievers; 12, or 70.6 per cent, of 17 pagans; six, or 60 per cent, of ten adherents to 'Abkhazian beliefs' and seven, or 43.8 per cent, of 16 atheists.

The majority of respondents indicated that they or their relatives had a shrine, or anykha, in their family's village. Anykha frequently meant azhira, or smithy, the worship of which can be traced back to the ancient cults of fire and metal. An insignificant number of respondents referred to worshipping shrines which had 'general Abkhazian' importance. This seems to be linked with the fact that 'domestic' shrines belong to everyday life and people can appeal to more revered, 'powerful' anykha only in far more critical situations. The latter included the shrines Dydrypsh-nykha, Yebyr-nykha, Lapyr-nykha, Lashkendar, Ldzaa-nykha, Lykh-nykha and Ylyr-nykha. Several respondents said that their family or clan shrine was a 'akhapshchshchaa' (holy pitcher) or 'rnykhrrtaa' (traditional family or clan prayer place) situated at a holy place in a specific village, for example 'Klanutkhuvskaya anykha'.

A respondent from the Ebzhnou family living in the city of Gudauta interestingly named as his family shrine 'Bytkha': in Bagrat Shinkub's novel 'Last of the Departed' this is known as the shrine of the Ubykhs, a people related to the Abkhazians who lived in an area near to modern-day Sochi until their violent expulsion to Turkey at the end of the nineteenth century. Several respondents mentioned worship at family shrines, for example, Akhba-nykha of the Akhba family in the town of Achandara. Several members of families well-known for their historical links with the sea - the Ampar family, for example - mentioned worship 'at the shrine on the sea coast', with the illegibly written name Ryapsh (or Ryeti).

Syncretic consciousness among Abkhazians today is clearly illustrated by the reasoning of Lyutik Khagb from the town of Achandara, who considers himself a Muslim: 'Allah is God for all people, but for us the main god is Dydrypsh who inhabits Dydrypsh-nykha mountain nearby'. The fact that traditional cults and rituals continue to be observed by all Abkhazians explains the almost total absence among them of differences between Christians and Muslims. There are only a few differences in burial rites, the timing of funeral repasts (on the fortieth day for Christians, on the fifty-second day for Muslims) and observed religious holidays, which, incidentally, have completely lost their original religious content. Moreover, if the festival is Christian then Muslims are pleased to take part, and vice versa. In families which contain members of different confessions then, if circumstances allow, they celebrate both Christian and Muslim festivals together. In most cases the celebration comes down to a spread of specially prepared dishes and invitations to relatives, neighbours and friends.

The general picture of syncretic consciousness and complete religious toleration is not disturbed even by Abkhazian atheists. One, for example, said that there was an azhira in her parents' house in the village of Primorsk, and that she herself appealed to it for help when she was ill and brought a sacrifice of thanksgiving after she had recovered. Another atheist said that he regularly took part in 'ritual celebrations' with his relatives.

The church is also respectful of local beliefs. After the Easter service in the tenth-century church of Lykhnyen, for example, the clergy and parishioners take part in Shakryl family prayers at the ancient shrine of Lykh-nykha; the prayers were resumed in the early 1990s and take place within the church fence.

The preservation of the major role played by traditional cults is primarily explained by the fact that they have great significance in the lives of Abkhazian families and clans. In family and clan gatherings the elder takes on the role of priest and, after sacrificing an animal, appeals to the great god Anshchshchyua (this is the exact spelling, unlike Antsea or Antsva as is written today) with a request to remove misfortunes, illnesses and other inflictions from all his relatives, to prolong, increase and bless the clan, and other similar wishes. Afterwards each member of the clan repeats the prayer, eats a bite from the cooked liver and heart of the sacrificial animal and drinks a glass of holy wine which has been specially prepared for the ceremony. There is then a meal comprising the meat of the sacrificial animal and other dishes which have been prepared and arranged in a strictly defined manner.

Abkhazians begin to take part in such ceremonies and feasts from a very early age, and they are an extremely effective means of consolidating the cohesion of family and clan. All attempts by the Soviet authorities to combat Abkhazians traditions, declared as reactionary elements, were entirely unsuccessful. The results of the questionnaire bear witness to the preservation of the major role of the family-clan structure in the lives of Abkhazians today. Thus 43.5 per cent of respondents said that they always take part in family and clan gatherings and 21 per cent said that they did from time to time, which means that 64.5 per cent of all respondents, as well as their children, continue to a greater or lesser extent to be 'building blocks' of traditional family-clan structures.

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