For centuries, the country and land known as Georgia has been at a crossroads of both geography and history, and the current era is no exception to this. It has fluctuated between having a European or an Asian mindset, but it has always been Christian. Like the rest of Georgia’s history, the story of Georgian Christianity, in particular the predominant Georgian Orthodox Church, has been tumultuous, in a constant cycle of power and persecution, but always shaping the Georgian identity. And today, the Church’s status as a driver of Georgian identity is shaping the development of international outlook, culture, and policy within the modern Republic of Georgia.
Georgia’s outlook has always been one of competing forces, owing to its geographic location. The land that would become Georgia was situated at the edge of what would be several different empires, from the Roman Empire to the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Empire (that would succeed it) and finally the Russian Empire.
Georgia briefly managed to become independent in 1918 during the chaos of the Russian Civil War, but the country was soon absorbed into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, where it would remain for nearly another seven decades. With perestroika and glasnost taking hold during the Soviet Union’s last years, Georgians increasingly agitated for independence, which was given to them in 1991 following bloody clashes the previous year.
Almost immediately, Georgia was beset by ethnic tensions, with the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia declaring themselves independent from the Georgian state. On top of this, the government of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first post-Soviet president who was widely seen as authoritarian, was overthrown in a coup-d’état by opposition forces loyal to Eduard Shevardnadze. Gamsakhurdia’s government went into exile and with its loyalist forces, which included substantial parts of the military, waged war on the new government. The three year civil war ended in November of 1993, with Shevardnadze’s government victorious after Russian assistance whose leader Boris Yeltsin saw Shevardnadze as a more reliable ally in the post-Soviet world.
Through it all, however, the one unifying force within Georgia was and remains its Orthodox Christianity, led by the Georgian Orthodox Church. Christianity arrived in Georgia within the first century of the Common Era, according to legend, spread by the Apostles Simon and Andrew. It was one of the first areas to Christianize. Originally a subsidiary of the Church of Antioch, the body that would become the Georgian Orthodox Church would steadily gain independence until the early 1800s, when the Russian Empire annexed the region and the larger Russian Orthodox Church. When the Russian Empire fell in 1917, the Georgian Orthodox Church was given independence, but subsequent Soviet rule, driven by a policy of state atheism, saw the purge of large numbers of priests, and the destruction of several important churches and monasteries, such as the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Tbilisi, were demolished. But many Georgians continued to keep the faith, with the devout continuing to go to mass and receive communion even if it meant they would have to travel for long distances, according to One Magazine, a publication by the Catholic Near East Welfare Organization.
As the Soviet Union began to collapse, the Orthodox Church filled the ideological power vacuum, promoting a kind of religious nationalism; the Church was an early supporter of Eduard Shevardnadze, who was personally baptized by the Church’s Patriarch, Ilia II. Religiosity became seen as an expression of patriotism wherein “a good Georgian is an Orthodox Georgian,” according to the Poland-based Center for Eastern Studies. It was for this reason that the Georgian Orthodox Church was given special privileges and state funding under the 2003 Georgian Constitution, despite an official separation of church and state, owing to the Church’s unique position in Georgian culture and history. According to the LGBT advocacy group Polis 180, this has manifested in the transfer of large amounts of money from the Georgian state to the patriarchate, in exchange for its continued support for certain government projects. In addition, a survey conducted by the Pew Forum found that a minority of Georgians believe that religion should be kept separate from politics, and that more than eighty percent of those surveyed believed that to be truly Georgian was to be a follower of the Georgian Orthodox Church.
But in recent years, this position has become a source of conflict within Georgian society, as corruption scandals have come to light regarding those close to Patriarch Ilia II. One such scandal became public in 2017, when a Georgian Orthodox priest, Giorgia Mamaladze, was arrested at Tbilisi International Airport by Georgian authorities for attempting to carry a vial of cyanide within his luggage as he planned to board a flight to Berlin. Patriarch Ilia II was in Germany at the time, receiving medical treatment. Authorities alleged that Mamaladze, the head of the Church’s property division, was attempting to assassinate the patriarch. The scandal deepened when prosecutors revised their allegations, saying that Shorena Tetruashvili, the patriarch’s personal secretary, was the intended target. This was because a letter by Mamaladze had been sent to Ilia II, alleging that Tetruashvili and others in the Church’s hierarchy have been presiding over a criminal empire. According to a report by Radio Free Europe, Mamaladze alleged in this letter that the Church was involved in numerous cases of graft, corruption, and illegal land acquisition. That the church would be able to get away with this is unsurprising, as one of the terms agreed to in the Concordat of 2002 between the Church and the Georgian government was that the Church has the exclusive right to all of its properties, both historical and current, and, more crucially, that the patriarch of the Church was immune from state prosecution. This would allow any shady dealings conducted by the Church to continue unabated.
But perhaps the most visible sign of the Church’s influence in Georgian society can be found in its actions against LGBTQ people. Virtually every expression in favor of LGBT rights in Georgia has been opposed by the Georgian Orthodox Church, which sees it as a “perversion of nature” and a violation of God’s law. On one occasion documented by the Greenwood Encyclopedia of LGBT Issues Worldwide, in 2007, a reality show contestant came out as gay on Georgian television; this contestant was kicked off the show soon after, allegedly, at the personal request of Patriarch Ilia II, fearing it would be a corrupting influence on Georgian society. Later on, a 2013 LGBT rights rally in Tbilisi, organized by the LGBT advocacy group Identoba, was violently attacked by a mob of counter-protestors led by Orthodox priests. These attacks followed a similar incident the previous year, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Yet it is violent actions such as these, in addition to the scandals mentioned previously, that have been steadily eroding the Church’s stranglehold over Georgian government and society. Georgia’s government plans to join the European Union, which has brought it into increasing conflict with the Church. A report by the Jamestown Foundation found that most of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s higher ranked bishops have links to the Russian Orthodox Church, citing a common Orthodox Christian faith. The Russian Church is itself tightly connected with the Vladimir Putin’s Russian government. The Russian government, in turn, seeks to prevent Georgia’s joining of the EU, seeing such a move as a threat to its regional power.
According to an article posted by Open Caucasus Media in 2020, trust in the Georgian Orthodox Church has been further shaken by accusations of sexual misconduct, most notably by former Archbishop Petre Tsaava, who alleged that Ilia II is a pedophile, allegations for which Tsaava was expelled from the Church, obviously fueling public suspicion. Meanwhile, whilst LGBT people are still mostly rejected by Georgian society, a recent Pew Research study suggested that acceptance of LGBT persons is slowly rising, particularly among the younger generations, who have had more exposure to more tolerant western culture. The article by Open Caucasus Media also stated that the Church’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has also inspired a great deal of criticism, as Ilia II refused to cancel services, despite entreaties by public health officials to do so. In all, while a supermajority of Orthodox Christians in Georgia fully trusted the Church in 2008, only about a third did so in 2019, with the downward trend likely to continue into 2021.
Moving forward, the Church’s influence within Georgian society seems to be waning as a new, more secular, and open-minded generation rises up. However, as the recent arrest of pro-western opposition leader Nika Melia shows, Georgia’s future is far from decided. Whatever happens, the Georgian Orthodox Church remains positioned to battle for the future of the nation’s soul.