A survey of Abkhazia's population (1997 and 2003) shows Abkhaz people are highly religious. In 2003, 60% of the people surveyed considered themselves Christians, 16% Muslims, 8% atheists and unbelievers, 5% pagans, 3% devotees of an Abkhaz religion. Jehovah's Witnesses and Jews accounted for less than 1% each, and 6% thought it difficult to answer.
The big number of religious people among Abkhazia's population does not yet mean they all are deeply pious or at least aware of the outlines of a religion. Most people's declared devotion to Christianity continues to be purely formal. Just a few parishioners go to church even on the most important Christian holidays. Meanwhile, Abkhaz pagan sanctuaries are often attended by hundreds of people.
The gap between Abkhaz people's declared faith and actual religious ideas is specific. They sincerely believe in single God-Creator (Antsea), but they do not recognize Jesus Christ as Son of God, go to church, receive Communion or fast.
The uncertain status of the Orthodox Church in Abkhazia is one of the key reasons that prevent the Orthodoxy from gaining a stronger position. The Sukhum-Abkhaz eparchy of the Georgian Orthodox Church has had no bishop since the 1992-93 war. Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili), head of the eparchy, who constantly conducted services for the Georgians' victory had to flee to Tbilisi. As a result, the Georgian Church leadership has not been able to guide the operation of orthodox parishes in Abkhazia for over ten years already.
The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), despite the big number of Russians living in Abkhazia, continues to view local orthodox parishes exclusively as a part of the Georgian Orthodox Church. This fundamental position of the ROC was once again confirmed in late July 2003 when the ROC Synod adopted a special resolution recognizing Abkhazia as a part of the canonical territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Orthodox parishes in Abkhazia are currently run without a bishop by an interim Eparchial Board of the local orthodox clergy. Until recently, this Board refused to acknowledge the supremacy of the Georgian Orthodox Church that in turn refused to acknowledge it a legal structure. Thus, Abkhazia's orthodox parishes remain outside normal canonical communion with either the Georgian or the Russian Orthodox Churches. As a result, most orthodox churches in Abkhazia have no priests.
About the same is happening to Islam that once played a very important role in Abkhazia's political life (17-18 cent.) Islam's positions were undermined by a mass departure of the most Islamized part of the Abkhaz population to Turkey in the late 19 cent. and the long period when Abkhazia was a part of the Russian Empire and then the USSR.
There is not a single mosque in Abkhazia to date; those Abkhazians who consider themselves Muslim do not revere Prophet Mohammad and the overwhelming majority of them have not the slightest idea about the Koran. Just a few identified Allah and God-Creator Antsea and in doing so specified that "Allah is all people's God" whom they deeply revere, but their own personal guardian angel (Dydrypsh, Lykhnykh, Ldzaanykh, etc.) is always near them, too.
Muslim Abkhazians have no limitations on food or drink. They view circumcision as something unnatural and shameful. The secret of Abkhaz toleration is that Abkhaz "Christians" and "Muslims" in reality profess the common religion of their ancestors.
Aware of these specifics, present-day priests of Abkhazia's Orthodox Church pay emphatic respect to the traditional religion and constantly attend the most important prayer services in Abkhaz sanctuaries.
Further development of the denominational situation and the destiny of the Orthodox Church in Abkhazia depend primarily on political factors. The absence of canonical relationship between the Georgian Orthodox Church and orthodox parishes in Abkhazia has led to a favorable situation for various new religious movements in Abkhazia. In such circumstances, activities aimed at reducing the politicization of church life in Abkhazia become especially urgent.
Published on March 18, 2004
Alexander Krylov, doctor of science in history; Source: Nezavisimaya Gazeta