THE GEORGIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH IN CURRENT GEORGIAN POLICY
Beka Chedia, Ph.D. (Political Science), fellow at the Institute of Political Science of Georgia (Tbilisi, Georgia)
For historical reasons the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) has always been a subject of Georgian policy despite its separation from the state registered in the country’s Constitution.
At all times religion not only confirmed and preserved the nation’s spiritual values—it served the national and state interests. Today, rapidly unfolding globalization has posed the question of the future role of the church and religious values in general. This is especially important in Georgia where the Christian faith has been and remains one of the components of national self-awareness. “Language-Motherland-Religion” is the linchpin of the national ideology that was revived when the country restored its independence.
In the years of Soviet occupation, the Communists either destroyed churches or used them for different purposes (they were turned into clubs, theaters, or storage facilities). In the very early years of Soviet occupation, a Council of Militant Atheists was set up to carry out anti-religious propaganda based on Lenin’s ideas.
The Age of Catharsis: from Atheism to Concordat
The Church regained its former influence along with the national-liberation movement that gained momentum in the 1990s. When the communist regime began loosening its grip, the GOC came to the fore. Church attendance increased; old churches were restored and new ones built. While the communist regime persecuted all faiths, in the 1990s the leaders of the Georgian independence movement encouraged religion. When the national government headed by Zviad Gamsakhurdia came to power, the GOC became an equal entity of the country’s public life. Religious revival became irreversible to the extent that the Church preserved its role and even increased its influence under former communist Eduard Shevardnadze who replaced deposed Gamsakhurdia. During his years in power Shevardnadze openly demonstrated his religious feelings to push aside the earlier image of a communist. It was under him that many new churches were built. On the other hand, all sorts of religious sects, the relations of which with the GOC can be described as complicated, were mushrooming and consolidating their position at a catastrophic pace. The GOC never recognized them as religious minorities and accused them of blasphemy. This applied primarily to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the largest sect in Georgia. According to its ruling council, it has 16,900 followers in Georgia (a large figure for a country with a population of 4 million). In Russia, with a population of 145 million, there are 153 thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses, in Armenia there are 10 thousand, in Azerbaijan, 799, and in Turkey, 1,000, which means that in Georgia the situation is much more acute than in its neighbors. The GOC maintains positive relations with the traditional religions—Islam, Catholicism, and Gregorianism—with which it shares a common history. The oldest part of the Georgian capital is the best confirmation of this—1 sq km contains cultic buildings of all the traditional religions represented in the republic.
The general rejection of the Jehovah’s Witnesses engaged in persistent proselytism took the form of…………