On May 18 2021 the self-declared president of the breakaway Georgian region (occupied by Russians), Abkhazia, Aslan Bzhania, visited the Syrian Arab Republic where he met the patriarch of Antioch, John X. The patriarch of Antioch received him as a leader of the independent republic. The patriarch did not mention that Abkhazia is the territory of the Georgian state and the Georgian Church. We have reasonable doubt that the pro-Russian patriarch of Antioch might take some non-canonical actions regarding Abkhazia. Because of these reasons, in the context of this visit, we want to clarify some aspects of the relation between the Georgian and Antiochian churches.
During centuries the prelates of Antioch sought domination over the Christian communities not only in the Roman empire, but also outside its borders (for example, over the Persian Church). The Georgian Church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, also became an object of these ambitious claims. According to this claim, the See of Antioch is the ‘mother church’ for the Georgian Church. Even today this opinion is very popular not only in the Church of Antioch, but also among the theologians and church historians. Does this claim have any historical basis? As it appears, this idea lacks any compelling historical evidence. As in the case of the Persian Church (later known as ‘Nestorian Church’), the earliest sources do not confirm that the Georgian Church was ever under the jurisdiction of Antioch. This is evident from the fact that the Georgian (Iberian) Church is absent in the sixth-century list of the bishoprics which were under the jurisdiction of Antioch (published by a famous scholar, Ernst Honigmann). We should remember that in the ancient Church every local Christian community was autocephalous or independent. Only after the fourth century the strong process of centralization of the ecclesiastical structure of the Roman empire begun. During the fifth and sixth centuries many local Christian communities lost their independence and fell under the jurisdiction of the great ecclesiastical centers (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem). But the Christian communities outside the empire preserved their independence. The claim of Antioch over the Georgian Church became widespread only very late, in the eleventh century. Unfortunately, during the later medieval period the patriarchs of Antioch completely forgot their duty. For purely financial matters, they traveled to the Orthodox countries. They often, in order to gain financial support from local Orthodox authorities, issued utterly non-canonical decrees. This happened when the patriarch of Antioch Michael IV (1456-1474) granted ecclesiastical independence to the western Georgian bishop Joachim and caused the split in the Georgian Church (during 1470-1474). We know for sure that the jurisdiction of Antioch never reached the western Georgia. There is not even the slightest evidence even in the late antique and medieval Greek sources to support this claim. Despite this fact, the patriarch of Antioch acted as if he was the supreme ecclesiastical authority in the affairs of the Georgian church.
We want to state very clearly that Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region (so called South Ossetia) are under the jurisdiction of the Georgian Church from ancient times. The patriarch of Antioch does not have any right to intervene in the ecclesiastical affairs of Georgia. We hope that the Antiochian Church will not repeat the grave mistakes of its own past and will abstain from taking any kind of non-canonical actions.
Shota Matitashvili, Historian