A Georgian Revival

Squeezed between Asia and Europe, an ancient nation rediscovers the sacred

by Molly Corso

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A crowd swelled around Bishop Tevdora Chuadze as he blessed the faithful in Tbilisi’s St. George Kvashveti Church on 23 November, the feast of St. George.

Hundreds of believers filled the church, spilling into the adjoining courtyard where they waited to kiss and venerate the patronal icon of St. George. That afternoon, all of Georgia’s television stations broadcast the baptism of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s son by the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II.

On that day, some 15 years after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Communist-imposed atheism, it seemed the Georgian Orthodox Church had made a full recovery. A recent poll by the Caucasus Research Resource Center found that 63 percent of Georgians “fully trust” the church. (About 80 percent of Georgia’s 4.7 million citizens belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church.) In contrast, only 22 percent placed similar trust in President Saakashvili.

“The Georgian people were very strong, and did not lose their faith,” said Father Giorgi Getiashvili of the Kvashveti Church, one of the capital’s premier parishes.

Under Communist rule, people continued to go to church in secret. And after the fall of the Soviet Union, the church was reborn, Father Giorgi explained. “It was freed.”

In order to create a society free of class and superstition, Communists — who ruled Georgia from the early 1920’s until 1991, when it formed part of the Soviet Union — identified organized religion as a logical obstruction. They destroyed churches, mosques and synagogues, and imprisoned or killed priests, religious and believers.

Their efforts, however, were only the latest in a long history of attacks specifically against Georgia’s Orthodox Church, the principal faith of the Georgian people, who in the early fourth century were among the first to accept Christianity. Subsequently, Georgia, along with neighboring Armenia, was embroiled in numerous wars with its neighbors, particularly the Persian, Mongol and Ottoman empires, all of whom sought to eradicate the church, the buttress of the Georgian nation.

In the 18th century, a besieged Georgia turned to its northern neighbor, Russia — fellow Orthodox Christians — for support. In 1783, the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti and Russia signed the Treaty of Georgievsk, which pledged Russian protection.

Within 20 years, a series of Russian decrees incorporated Georgia into the Russian Empire, despite some Georgian resistance. Georgia lost its secular and its ecclesial autonomy. Ironically, the Orthodox tsar of Russia, not the Muslim sultan in Constantinople, eliminated the Georgian Orthodox Church, subordinating its eparchies to the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Then, as before, religion was a means of preserving cultural autonomy.

“Religion was the main defense mechanism during our history when we were surrounded by Muslims,” said Giorgi Nizharadze, social research director of the International Center on Conflict and Negotiation in Tbilisi.

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Tags: Orthodox Church Georgia Communism/Communist Georgian Orthodox Church