The Rise of the Christian-Orthodox Church in Post-Soviet Georgia

November 2, 2016
Mariam Goshadze, PhD candidate

On Wednesday, November 3, a resident of the Center, Mariam Goshadze, gave a talk on the role of the Orthodox Church in Post-Soviet Georgia. Although Mariam is a PhD Candidate in African Religions, she was born and raised in the Republic of Georgia and her talk discussed increased involvement of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country's politics over the past twenty years.

Early signs of religious awakening appeared in the Soviet Republic of Georgia already in the late 1980s when public discourse became preoccupied with the rise of Heavenly Georgia. April 9, 1989 served as a focal point in turning the Georgian Orthodox Church into the symbol of national unity. As citizens took to the streets of the capital, Tbilisi, to demand independence from Moscow, Soviet authorities brutally "dispersed" them failing to realize that the blood of nineteen victims would sanctify the national movement. It is not coincidental that the country's independence was announced on April 9th, 1991. Amidst the two civil wars in the 1990s, corruption, high crime rates, economic poverty and social insecurity, the Orthodox Church grew into the beacon of hope and unity. Hence, the 1995 Constitution of Georgia recognized freedom of religion and belief, but granted the Georgian Orthodox Church legal recognition, privileges and direct financial assistance from the state budget. These benefits encouraged the Patriarchate to proclaim different religious minorities as a threat to the "true belief". The Catholicos Patriarch of Georgia, Ilia II, publicly announced that supporters of other religions were the enemies of the Georgian nation.

The obvious fraud of the 2002 elections was followed by peaceful protests in Tbilisi, culminating in the ousting of the long-term authoritarian president, Eduard Shevardnadze. The movement, dubbed as the Rose Revolution, triggered new presidential and parliamentary elections, bringing Mikhail Saakashvili and his United National Movement to power. Along with other drastic economic and political reforms, protection of ethnic and religious minorities became one of the priorities of the new government. Saakashvili opposed the nationalist narrative imbued with a religious and ethnic shroud and fostered the ideology of civic nationalism. Quite contrary to his objective, the pro-European and anti-religious orientation of Saakashvili's government instigated an unprecedented resurgence of the Georgian Orthodox Church. So much so that the Orthodox clergy directly intervened in the 2012 parliamentary pre-election campaign, openly supporting the Georgian Dream Coalition and its leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili. To show their support for the Church, the members of the Georgian Dream Coalition, in turn, relied on xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetoric throughout the pre-election campaign and after. The intolerant attitude to the country's minorities became particularly clear on May 17, 2013 when a small-scale demonstration to mark the international day against homophobia and transphobia (IDAHO) was violently dispersed by Orthodox priests and laypeople in Georgia's capital of Tbilisi.


—by Mariam Goshadze, PhD Candidate in African Religions, Harvard University