Georgia's mighty Orthodox Church

Patriarch Ilia II, the head of  Georgia's Orthodox church Patriarch Ilia II has presided over a dramatic increase in the size, influence and prestige of Georgia's Orthodox church

When several dozen Georgian Orthodox priests led tens of thousands of people on a violent attack against a small group of gay rights activists in Tbilisi earlier this year, much of the rest of the country was horrified, writes journalist Paul Rimple, who has been based in the country for 10 years.

Georgians pride themselves on their reputation for being hospitable and tolerant, and most consider themselves Christian.

Georgia Direct graphic

While the notion of homosexuality is not widely understood or accepted in this deeply traditional Caucasus nation, most Georgians were appalled by the scenes that unfolded in Tbilisi on 17 May.

And yet, what happened clearly illustrates the importance of the Church in Georgia.

Georgia was an early adopter of Christianity making it a state religion in 337AD. Georgians maintained their faith over the centuries despite the waves of invading hordes, including the armies of Ghengis Khan and Tamerlane.

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During communism, the church was outdated, something for old ladies”

End Quote Ghia Nodia Georgian political analyst

Although the Soviets permitted religion to be practised, its reach was severely limited. In 1917, there were 2,455 working churches in Georgia, but by the mid-1980s there were only 80, along with a few monasteries and a seminary.

"During communism, the church was outdated, something for old ladies," says political analyst Ghia Nodia.

That attitude quickly changed after independence in 1991, when the elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, espoused a philosophy of ethnic nationalism, which the Church embraced.

"During the (Gamsakhurdia) national movement, the concept that real Georgians are Orthodox Christians spread really fast," Mr Nodia says.

Tbilisi's Sameba cathedral was built at considerable expense after Georgia gained independence in 1991 Tbilisi's Sameba cathedral was built at considerable expense after Georgia gained independence in 1991

Over 80% of Georgia's 4.5 million people say they belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, however, experts claim only about 15% - 25% actively participate in rituals.

Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church remains the most trusted institution in Georgia. In a February survey carried out by the Caucasus Resource Research Center (CRRC), 95% of respondents had a favourable opinion of its work.

Beka Mindiashvili, a former theologian who is now head of the Tolerance Center at the public defender's office, attributes such high confidence in the Church to the 80-year-old Patriarch, Ilia II.

"He possesses all the right attributes. He is charismatic, he speaks slowly and each word is regarded saintly, holy," Mr Mindiashvili says.

"He is a person for everybody. To a simple person, he speaks simply; to a politician, he speaks politically; to an intellectual, he speaks of Umberto Eco and of classical music. And he acquired absolute power in the Church all by himself."

There were only about 50 priests when Ilia II became patriarch in 1977. Today there are approximately 1,700.

His first major test in power was in 1997, when a number of anti-ecumenical abbots threatened to break communion with him for being too liberal. He avoided a schism by breaking off ecumenical activities and pursuing what philosopher Zaza Piralishvili calls an "imitation of medieval rhetoric".

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Patriarch Ilia II, the head of  Georgia's Orthodox church

He is charismatic, he speaks slowly and each word is regarded saintly, holy.”

End Quote Beka Mindiashvili Theologian

Examples of the Church's ultra-conservative interventions included warnings that yoga was full of false "charms" that lured people away from God as well as a recent mass mobilisation against ID cards after some Georgian Orthodox leaders claimed the cards bore the mark of the anti-Christ.

The Church is recognised for maintaining a neutral political stance and Ilia II is renowned for playing a significant role as mediator in political confrontations, which in Georgia can easily turn violent.

Professor Iago Kachkachishvili, head of the sociology department at Tbilisi State University, says the Church's political neutrality is a myth.

"The Church's influence comes from public opinion," he says. "It uses the trust of the people as a source of strength. And every government and politician uses the Georgian Orthodox Church as a source of legitimacy."

While the constitution stipulates a separation between church and state, a 2002 concordat defined this relationship by granting the Church official recognition in Georgia and a special consultative role in the government, particularly in education.

In 2009, Mikheil Saakashvili's government awarded the Church a $15m (£10m) grant - three times the amount of the previous year - and presented luxury sports utility vehicles to each of the 10 archbishops.

Despite the lavish gifts, many conservative elements within the Church, who are pro-Russian, openly voiced their displeasure with the president. They saw his pro-Western orientation as a threat to Georgian traditions and the Church's influence on the people.

Orthodox priests were at the fore front of the protest over the gay rights march in Tbilisi Orthodox priests were at the forefront of the protest over the gay rights march in Tbilisi

The clash of ideologies came to head in July 2011, when parliament passed a law allowing religious minority groups in Georgia to be registered as legal entities in public law giving them legal protection previously only enjoyed by the Orthodox Church.

The move was applauded in the West, but the Georgian Orthodox Church saw this as an infringement on its special status.

Although Ilia II requested the clergy to maintain neutrality in the 2012 parliamentary elections, many priests broke ranks and openly supported the coalition of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had provided the funds to build Tbilisi's Sameba Cathedral, the largest church in Georgia.

But on 13 May, Bidzina Ivanishvili who by now was prime minister, took an independent stance and became the first Georgian politician to declare openly that sexual minorities were equal citizens of this country.

Three days later, Ilia II called on the authorities to ban the 17 May demonstration. This marked the first open confrontation between church and state and culminated in expletive-shouting priests chasing gay activists down the main streets of the capital.

Protesters broke through barricades and police were forced to bus the small number of activists out of the area for their protection.

The day after the attacks, Tbilisi artist Magda Guruli joined some 100 people who rallied in the city centre to call for justice.

She believes the response to the protest was a manifestation of the patriarch's power over the state.

"I'm here to say give me back my religion," she said. "Orthodoxy is part of our culture, but who are these people who try to influence society and try to influence their thoughts and try to cultivate blind faith?"

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