Resurgent Georgian Church sees influence soar
Tbilisi -- When the head of Georgia's Orthodox Church offered to become godfather to every third child born to a family last year, the response was nothing short of miraculous.
Birth rates among Georgian families soared by nearly 20 percent and within a year the patriarch, Ilia II, had presided over enough mass baptisms to become godfather to more than 2,000 children.
Nearly two decades after Georgia split from the staunchly atheist Soviet Union, such is the influence of the country’s Orthodox Church, which has undergone a remarkable resurgence to become one of the most trusted and powerful institutions in Georgia.
From politics to diplomacy, even to what’s shown on state television, the Church has extended its influence into every corner of Georgian society.
Its many supporters hail the Church for returning Georgia to its spiritual roots as one of the world’s oldest Christian nations and for acting as a unifying force in a country often wracked by divisions.
But some in Georgia are beginning to worry about its growing power and are asking questions about the blurring of lines between church and state, as well as alleged intolerance towards religious minorities.
"Today the Church is the most influential institution in Georgia, and this influence is growing," said Giorgi Khutsishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based International Centre for Conflicts and Negotiation.
In a poll the centre conducted last year, 87 percent of Georgians ranked the Church as the country’s most trusted institution, up from 39 percent in 2003.
Patriarch Ilia II also ranked as the most trusted figure in Georgia, with nearly 95 percent of those polled expressing trust in the Church leader. President Mikheil Saakashvili enjoyed the trust of just 33 percent of those polled.
Church spokesman Father David Sharashenidze said the resurgence was a logical step after the end of Soviet-era repressions.
"Georgians hungered for religion during the Soviet oppressions and when they ended people flocked to the Church," he said.
An unwelcome interference?
Recent events highlight just how much the Church’s influence has grown.
When police clashed with anti-government protesters in November 2007, the patriarch acted as a mediator between the authorities and the opposition to defuse the crisis.
After Georgia’s war with Russia in August, Ilia headed to Moscow and was the only Georgian figure to hold direct talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
And when the Church objected earlier this year to the inclusion of saints in a state television programme aimed at ranking the most influential Georgians, the programme’s format was quickly changed.
With politicians jostling to be seen as close to the Church, Saakashvili’s government has nearly tripled the Church’s funding in this year’s state budget to about 15 million dollars.
Nearly 180,000 dollars was also given separately to help finance a Church-run television station.
But the Church’s increasingly close ties with the state and its growing power are raising some alarm bells.
While Orthodox Christianity is not recognised as Georgia’s official religion, the Church does enjoy a privileged relationship with the state under a constitutional accord adopted in 2002, including being exempt from paying taxes.
"The Orthodox Church’s funding from the state budget has increased enormously and this is illegal as the state budget is collected from taxpayers from all confessions, not just Orthodox Christians," said Beka Mindiashvili, a religion expert with the Georgian ombudsman’s office.
He said 16 percent of Georgians profess a faith other than Orthodox Christianity and that many feel discriminated against.
Muslims living on Georgia’s Black Sea coast have complained of facing obstacles in getting permission to build mosques, for example, and Armenian Christians have been embroiled in numerous disputes with the Georgian Church.
"The Church interferes in political decision-making, cultural and educational issues," Mindiashvili said.
Criticism of the Church is exceptionally rare. When a reformist deacon, Basil Kobakhidze, raised concerns about intolerance and corruption within the Church in 2003, he was promptly expelled from the church hierarchy.
Still, experts say there are signs that Georgian society is starting to ask questions about the Church’s growing role. After the Church’s intervention with state television this year, debate and phone-in programmes featured critics accusing the Church of overstepping its bounds.
"This started a public debate about the Church’s position and influence," Georgian political analyst Giorgi Margvelashvili said. "It was the first time we saw open debate on this issue."