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A Georgian Revival

After Communism, Orthodoxy rebounds

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.

Preserving elements of Georgian religious tradition was also essential to fighting the growing influence of Russia, which after 1811 forced Georgians to celebrate liturgies in Church Slavonic, rather than Georgian.

In 1918, when Georgia declared independence, bishops, priests and lay members of the Georgian Orthodox Church followed suit and reclaimed its autocephalous (sovereign) status with its own catholicos-patriarch and bishops.

But the church’s freedom, like Georgia’s, was short-lived. In 1921, Soviet Russia annexed Georgia. Religion was suppressed, and several eminent church figures, including the catholicos-patriarch, were killed.

Still, many Georgians did not give up their faith. “In order to receive Communion, my family walked for 30 miles,” Father Giorgi said. “People went to church quietly, secretly. If there were no priests in the churches, people went anyway and prayed. The rituals did not exist; people just went.”

It was more difficult for people with government jobs, said Father Narek Kushchyan, pastor of the Armenian Apostolic Church of St. George. “There were people, due to their jobs or their position in the Communist Party, who were afraid to go to church.”

The fact that Georgia was on the edge of the Soviet empire, far from the clutches of Moscow, may have also stymied its war against religion.

“There was a lot more opportunity to follow our traditions here than in Russia,” said Rabbi Avimelekh Rozenblat, Georgia’s chief rabbi. Historically, Georgia had been a haven for Jews escaping the anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia.

During the Soviet era, Rabbi Rozenblat said, Jews successfully preserved their traditions. “Although without schools and synagogues to teach the Torah it was hard to preserve it.”

The Communists tried to shame people into giving up their faith, recalled Dally Shakeladze, who is Georgian Orthodox. By the 1970’s, she said, people were more embarrassed than scared to practice religion openly. Teachers warned their students that if they visited a cemetery during Easter, their faces would be shown on television.

“It was not that someone would beat you if you went,” she said. “But I was ashamed somehow that I would be on television. If your father worked in a good place he could lose his job. There was pressure.”

Later, as Georgia and other Soviet republics began to bridle under Moscow’s control, religion played an important role. It was a “tool for sociological self-defense,” Mr. Nizharadze said. “When you live for ages under an authoritarian regime, people need an institution” that they consider an even higher power, he added.

On 9 April 1989, a peaceful demonstration against Communist rule in Tbilisi ended in a massacre when Soviet troops opened fire, prompting even greater public agitation against Moscow’s control. Exactly two years later, Georgia declared its independence. Subsequently, civil war broke out as various factions jockeyed for power in the post-Soviet vacuum, until Eduard Shevardnadze gained the presidency in 1995.

Today, the resurgence of religious faith, especially Georgian Orthodoxy, is highly visible — and not just on St. George’s Day. Stores now sell Georgian and Russian icons, as well as prayer books. When Georgians pass in front of a church, they are apt to make the Sign of the Cross.

Even during the Soviet period, something remained inside Georgians, Mrs. Shakeladze said. Her parish has grown so large in the last three years, a second church is being planned.

“The people themselves were always with the church, and they have remained with the church,” Father Giorgi said.

Still, the resurgence has not been easy or seamless. Mrs. Shakeladze said the past three years have been humbling as she has tried to learn everything about her rekindled faith.

“In the three years that I started to go to church, it turns out I don’t know anything,” she said. “It is like I am in school again and I am already in the third grade now.”

Georgia’s Jewish community, which numbers fewer than 4,000 members, also has lost much collective knowledge, Rabbi Rozenblat said.

“There was a definite weakening in the 1970’s and 1980’s, when the older generation began to leave and the younger generation was not studying the faith.”

“I was an atheist — although I was not serious about it,” said Vladimir Stepin of his Jewish roots.

“I remember my grandmother followed all of the rituals, had us circumcised.”

In recent years, he has tried to learn more about the faith of his ancestors.

Father Narek noted that, while church attendance is up, it remained unclear whether Georgia was becoming a more religious society. “People continue to get baptized and marry in the church, but to what extent that faith has become more or less important, only they can answer.” Still, increased attendance and a surge in activity of young Georgians give hope, he continued.

Religious resurgence, Mr. Nizharadze observed, can also be attributed to the bleak socioeconomic fortunes of the country: Georgia remains poor and politically unstable. “The sports, arts and social programs that were once outstanding during the Soviet Union have been lost.” But religion and historical myths remain.

“My father died, then my husband’s brother was killed and then my niece fell seriously ill. I started to turn to God and pray for my niece,” Mrs. Shakeladze related.

“People turn to God when they need something.”

At first, the Orthodox resurgence threatened other minority religions in Georgia. In the 1990’s, as the nascent Georgian state shook off Moscow’s influence, there were conscious, state-sanctioned efforts to elevate the Georgian Orthodox Church, which now enjoys official preeminence.

There have been incidents of political and social discrimination, often aimed at Jehovah’s Witnesses and other sects imported from the West since the collapse of Communism. In 2005, Georgia’s public defender, Solzar Subari, asked parliament to pass a law granting all religions equal status and protection under the law, but his motion failed.

Still, the situation has improved, and Georgians take pride in a long history of religious toleration within Georgia that they are committed to uphold. Mrs. Shakeladze pointed to a public square in Tbilisi that has for several centuries been the home to an Orthodox church, a synagogue and a mosque.

“We feel that the country protects its citizens, regardless of religion and ethnicity,” cited Ali Aliev, a religious scholar at Tbilisi’s Juma Mosque and Georgia’s representative to the Caucasus Muslim Department.

All of Georgia’s religious traditions will grow stronger, now that the Communist era is over, Father Giorgi Getiashvili concluded.

“These traditions are passed from generation to generation. Everything we have today has been practiced for a very long time, even centuries.

It’s due to God’s strength we have been able to preserve it.”

The writing of Tbilisi-based photojournalist Molly Corso has appeared in

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