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The villagers of Kedeli are hardworking folk who, while the weather is mild, are busy preparing their winter provisions. The dried corn is pulverized to form flour. Kvevris, large terra cotta amphoras, are filled with wine and then stored in the ground. Some of the women are cooking crushed grapes in large cauldrons to make tchouchkhela, a delicacy of stringed walnuts coated with the boiled grape substance and then baked in the hot sun. Bright red tomatoes and green peppers are cleaned and canned. There is little time left to do anything else.

“We are very proud of our village and of our Ninotsminda,” says Nana, a young villager, as she meticulously hangs bunches of grapes along her cellar wall to dry.

“Though I do not always have the time to go to church – I have a lot of work to do – I carry my faith in my heart.”

For almost 70 years, since the oppressive antireligious campaigns of the Bolsheviks began in the 1920s, Georgians have had no choice but to carry their faith in their hearts. Of the 2,455 churches functioning in Georgia until 1917, only 80 remained in the hands of the church in the mid-80s.

“Our monastery was closed for almost 40 years,” Bishop Atanesi reports, “until [the Soviet authorities in] Moscow allowed it to reopen in 1957.”

While the monastery church was closed, people practiced their faith in secret, worshipping in small chapels hidden in the dense forest.

“The authorities were unaware of the existence of such chapels,” says the Bishop.

“Priests who had been forced to resign from their missions would secretly travel to these chapels to baptize the children. Not a single child in these parts has grown up without being baptized. I was baptized in the middle of the night in the nearby village of Kardenakhi.”

Many of these priests were later found out by the Soviets and deported to Siberia.

Although baptism was customary in Georgia, religious instruction was not. In many regions, Georgians are aware that they are baptized Orthodox Christians, but they do not understand what it means to be a Christian, nor even how to make the sign of the cross.

“We have to consider that for 70 years we have lived under an atheist regime, and that as soon as we achieved independence our country fell into civil war,” Bishop Abraham says with a sigh. “Church and state are separate in Georgia, but religious education has been taught to children beyond the third grade for three years. The Ministry of Education has proposed additional reforms.”

A series of unexpected events, such as civil strife and an economic collapse, have surfaced in the post-Communist period, the Bishop states, compelling the Orthodox Church to act. Consequently, Georgia’s priests must be ready to embrace this expanded position of the church in post-Communist Georgia.

“There are many youngsters who attend the Divine Liturgy,” says Bishop Abraham. “Many wish to have a religious education and enroll in theological schools.”

“In 1988, we had one theological institution, which only 30 students were permitted to attend. Today, we have two theological academies and four seminaries. Almost 500 seminarians, all in their late teens, are preparing for the priesthood,” he continues with a smile.

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Tags: Georgia Georgian Orthodox Church Tbilisi