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    History of Christianity in Abkhazia

    Christianity arrived in Abkhazia in the 1st century together with the first Christian missionaries, apostles Andrew the First-Called and Simon the Zealot, who arrived here through Cappadocia and the coastal town of Trabzon. They preached their way from the southern coast of the Black Sea to Sebastopolis (now known as Sukhum). Here they parted ways. Andrew the First-Called moved on, and Simon the Zealot (also known as Simon the Zealot) remained in Abkhazia and preached Christianity here. In 55, during the persecution of Christians under Emperor Diocletian, Simon the Zealot was killed by Roman legionaries on the shore of the Psyrdzhi River (currently the site of Novy Afon). In the 9th-10th centuries a temple was built in his honor at the site of his burial. This temple is still standing and is currently active.

    According to religious scholars, six apostles have visited the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Five of the original twelve - Andrew, Simon, Matthew, Bartholomew and Judas, and one of the seventy - Thaddeus.

    Christianity was also brought to Abkhazia by the Christian martyrs who were exiled here, to the outskirts of the empire, by the Roman authorities. In the 4th century, during the struggle against the Persians, a military unit was formed in Antioch that included Orentius and his six brothers. Orentius distinguished himself by slaying a barbarian chief in a duel. The Roman emperor chose to reward Orentius by inviting him and his brothers to make an offering to the pagan gods. However, the Christian warriors refused and were therefore exiled and tortured. They withstood the torture, did not denounce their faith and were sent to Abkhazia. They all died at various points during their journey. Two were buried in Pitiunt (now Pitsunda), and one in Ziganis (now Gudava).

    According to religious lore, John Chrysostom, a famous liturgist and critic of the Byzantine Imperial court, was banished to Abkhazia in 407. On his way to Pitiunt he died in the Kaman village (according to one version, near Sukhum) and was buried here, and his body was later moved to Constantinople.

    Pitiunt was the first locus of Christianity in the Caucasus and the center of its further spread. In the 4th century a church community appeared here, headed by Bishop Safronii. In 325 Bishop Stratophilus of Pitiunt participated in the First Ecumenical Council. He is mentioned in all the surviving lists of the council. The Pitiunt Episcopate fell under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, who was head of the Pontian Church. From the 4th to the 7th century, seven temples were built in Pitsunda- these are the earliest Christian churches in Abkhazia.

    In the 5th century another Christian community was formed in Sebastopolis (now Sukhum), led by Bishop Cecropius who took part in the Fourth Ecumenical Council.

    The Byzantine scholar Procopius of Caesarea wrote that Emperor Justinian dispatched his chief eunuch of the Euphrates, an ethnic Abkhaz, to the Abazg peoples, built a temple to the Mother of God in Abkhazia (Tsandryphsh), sent priests and made sure that the local Abkhaz tribes adopted the Christian way of life. A special school was opened in Constantinople for the children of the Abkhaz aristocracy. In the 1530s Bishop Constantine, baptized the adult population of Abkhazia in Tsibilium (now Tsebelda), in a cross-shaped baptismal font within a special baptistery structure.

    Emperor Justinian was also directly involved in the establishment of a autocephalous Abazg diocese with a seat in Sebastopolis (Sukhum). In the 6th-7th centuries the Abazg diocese oversaw the following territories: Tsandrypsh, Pitsunda, Anacopia, Sebastopol, Tsebelda and Gyuenos (Ochamchyra). The Abazg Archbishop was directly subordinate to the Archbishop of Constantinople.

    First aristocracy of the ancient Abkhaz society was the first to accept Christian ideology. The evolution of the burial ceremony clearly demonstrates the transition from traditional religion to Christianity. Relatives usually placed objects that the deceased used in life at the burial place, because it was believed that they would come in useful on the other side of life. The Christian religion forbade this. Thus, gradually objects were eliminated from the burial sites -- first pottery and weapons, and later - ornaments. This process lasted over a hundred years after the official adoption of Christianity. The Abazgs and Apsils only started to wear crosses in the second half of the 6th century. Around the same time Christian symbols started to appear on household items.

    Most of the early Christian churches of Abkhazia date back to the reign of Justinian: Tsandryphsh, Dranda, Tsebelda, Gyuenos (Ochamchyra), Ziganis (Gudava) and others.

    During the same period, retired Byzantine warriors moved to Abkhazia, married, set up households, and intermingled with the locals. The 8th-9th centuries were the heyday of Christianity in Abkhazia. All of the best works of religious architecture belong to this period. Services in the temples were conducted in two languages - Greek and Abkhaz.

    In the mid-8th century, the leaders of Abkhazia send a church delegation to Antioch to seek independence from Constantinople. The Antioch Orthodox Church was independent of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Only two envoys reached Antioch; the others died en route at the hands of robbers. At the Antioch Church Council a decision was made to ordain one of the envoys, an Abkhaz named Ioann, who became the Catholicos. The Abkhaz Church could now elect its own Catholicos and ordain local priests. After returning to Abkhazia, the Catholicos moved the seat from Sebastopolis to Pitiunt.

    Martyr Eustathius became the first saint of the Abkhaz Church, whose sanctity was recognized throughout the Eastern Church. Eustathius was the ruler of Apsilia and in 738 he was captured by the Arab commander Suleiman ibn-Isam. He was martyred in Harrane and consequently people were healed by his relics.

    In the 13th-15th centuries Abkhazia came under the influence of Genoa. In 1390, Catholicos Arseny took the seat at Pitsunda. Russian religious scholars view this as the date of the establishment of the Abkhaz Church. The Catholicos was a native of West Georgia, as were his successors. Since that point, the Abkhaz not only could not hold the seat of Catholicos, but were also unable to be appointed to any episcopal chair. Only one Abkhaz -- Chachba (Shervashidze) -- became a bishop in the next five hundred years, but he held a chair outside Abkhazia.

    In 1454, after the fall of Constantinople, the Turkish fleet captured the city of Sebastopolis (Sukhum). From this point a period of decline of Christianity and the penetration of Islam began in Abkhazia. However, not a single mosque was built on the territory of Abkhazia. The position of Islam was not strong here, and it improved only with the appearance of Christian Russia in the Caucasus, as a result of the efforts by the mountain peoples to resist its aggressive policy.

    In the second half of the 16th century, the seat of the Abkhaz Catholicos was moved from Pitsunda to Gelati Monastery in western Georgia, and the title of the Catholicos became "Abkhaz and Imereti." Since the 17th century this was changed to "Imereti and Abkhaz." Thus, the seat of the Abkhaz Catholicos was captured by church officials from Western Georgia, and they did not allow representatives of the Abkhaz people to hold it. As a result, the Abkhaz people started to become estranged from the Church, which conducted services in a foreign language and did not understand the aspirations of the majority of the parishioners.

    In 17th-18th centuries, the churches of Abkhazia became neglected. They were abandoned by believers, and robbed and burned by the Turkish Muslims.

    In 1810, Abkhazia became a part of the Russian Empire. The Caucasus War virtually paralyzed church life. There were only three active churches: Pitsunda, Lykhny and Ilori. In the second quarter of the 19th century, Ilori temple became the only remaining church.

    In 1851 the Abkhaz diocese was established in Abkhazia and became part of the Georgian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1885 it ceased to exist. In 1869 Bishop Gavriil, who led the Imereti territory, was entrusted to oversee the Abkhazian diocese, and he worked hard to revive Christianity in Abkhazia: new congregations appeared, people were baptized, and several new churches were built in Abkhaz villages.

    In 1875 Russian monks started the construction of the Cathedral of St. Panteleimon in New Athos, restored the temple, founded the Simon the Zealot monastery, and opened a monastery school for Abkhaz boys.

    In 1885, the Abkhaz diocese became the Diocese of Sukhum, covering a large territory extending from Ingur River to Anapa. In 1917 the Diocese of Sukhum included 125 parish churches: 61 Abkhaz, 36 Russian, 16 Greek, 4 Mingrelian-Georgian and 8 mixed. The diocese had two major monasteries for men on the territory of Abkhazia (the Monastery of Simon the Zealot in New Athos and the Monastery of the Dormition in Dranda) and two major monasteries for women (The Monastery of Dormition in Mokva and the Vasilisko-Zlatoustovsky Monastery in Koman). Many Abkhaz priests received an excellent education at these monasteries and went on to edify the people, setting up parish schools. By the early 20th century there were about 100 such schools throughout Abkhazia.

    In 1918, Abkhazia was occupied by the Georgian mensheviks. Immediately thereafter, the Georgian Orthodox church opened its own Sukhum-Abkhaz diocese in the territory of the Diocese of Sukhum, headed by Bishop Amvrosii (Khelaya). Since then, the Sukhum diocese ceased to exist. With the arrival of the bolsheviks, almost all of the clergy were expelled or killed, and the temples and monasteries were closed.

    In 1943, the Russian Orthodox Church recognized the independence of the Georgian Church, and all the parish churches on the territory of Abkhazia were transferred under the control of the Georgian Church. A Sukhum-Abkhaz diocese was formed, which had no monasteries and only six churches. During the Georgian-Abkhaz War of 1992-1993, all the Georgian clergy left the territory of Abkhazia and four priests remained: Vissarion Aplia (Gudauta Church), Peter Samsonov (Lykhny Church), Paul Kharchenko (Gagra Church), and Vitaly Golub (Sukhum Cathedral). In 1993, they elected Vissarion Aplia as the rector of the Sukhumi Cathedral and the representative of the Sukhum-Abkhaz diocese for relations with the state and the Russian Orthodox Church.

    Today only 15 of the 140 churches in Abkhazia are active, there are two male monasteries and 15 priests.