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The Orthodox Church of Georgia

A council of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which gathered together the entire hierarchy along with clerical and lay delegates, met in September 1995. It made several decisions to foster a pastoral and spiritual renewal of the church. It also requested a clarification of the position of the Georgian Church in the dyptics and proceeded to the canonization of five new saints.

By 1997 anti-ecumenical attitudes had gained much ground in Georgia, and serious divisions began to appear over the participation of the church in the ecumenical movement. In an open letter published on May 17, 1997, the abbots of five monasteries threatened to break communion with Patriarch Ilia, who had served as one of the presidents of the World Council of Churches from 1979 to 1983, because of his ecumenical activities. Tensions were running very high, and in order to avoid a possible schism, the Holy Synod voted on May 20, 1997, to withdraw from both the WCC and the European Council of Churches. This did not entirely resolve the situation, however, and some of the leaders of the opposition, who had links either to Old Calendarist groups in Greece or Metropolitan Ephraim in Boston, called upon the church to break communion with those Orthodox churches that continued to participate in ecumenical organizations. There was a significant political factor in this dispute: Patriarch Ilia had forged a close alliance with President Shevardnadze’s government, while the anti-ecumenical group was linked to supporters of ousted President Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

In spite of the fact that ecumenism is a very sensitive topic in the Georgian Church, Pope John Paul II was able to visit the country on November 8 and 9, 1999, on his way back to Rome from India. The Pope meet with President Shevardnadze, was received by Patriarch Ilia and the Orthodox Holy Synod, addressed a group of cultural figures, and celebrated Mass in a sports stadium in Tbilisi. Nevertheless, in September 2003 a proposed agreement between the Georgian government and the Vatican regulating the status of the Catholic Church in the country failed at the last moment, due in part to the strong opposition of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

On October 14, 2002 the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the government signed a concordat that was, in part, a working out of the privileged status of the Orthodox Church as noted in Article Nine of Georgia’s Constitution. Orthodoxy’s historical role in the shaping of the nation was consolidated in such areas as the rights of the clergy and of the church in relation to the government and in society.

A rebellion broke out against President Shervardnadze in November 2003 in the wake of parliamentary elections that were widely seen as corrupt. The process leading to Shervardnadze’s resignation and the installation of a new more pro-western government in Georgia took place without violence due in large part to the intervention Patriarch Ilia, who made a strong appeal against the use of arms. The church now faces a new challenge to integrate itself into the more westernized society promoted by President Saakashvili.

Out of a total population of 4,400,000, most ethnic Georgians (80% of the population) self-identify as Georgian Orthodox. In 2006 the Georgian Orthodox Church reported having 30 dioceses, 1004 parish priests, and 65 monasteries.

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