Georgian Orthodox Church

views updated May 09 2018


The Orthodox Church of Georgia, an autocephalous church of the Byzantine rite Eastern Churches, is an ancient community. It dates from the fourth century, and stories of the evangelization of Kartli center around St. Nino, called Equal to the Apostles, who was born in Cappadocia, studied in Jerusalem, and made her way through Armenia to preach, heal, baptize, and convert the Georgian people. Later traditions add apostolic visits from St. Andrew and St. Simeon the Canaanite that reflect evangelization of western Georgia. Christians in Kartli continued to have a strong relationship with the Armenians until the seventh century, when these Christian people opted for different Christologies.

The autocephaly of the Orthodox Church is claimed from the fifth century, when the Archbishop of Mtskheta was given the title of Catholicos. There was later also a Catholicos in western Georgia, coinciding with the Kingdom of Abkhazia.

Western Georgia was evangelized more directly by Greeks, and, after the split from the Armenians, the entire Georgian Church strengthened its ties with the church in Constantinople. Of the family of Orthodox Churches that derive their liturgies from the Byzantine tradition, the liturgical language remains an archaic Georgian, not entirely intelligible to modern speakers.

The Georgians, for much of their history, have lived under the rule of Muslim states. Arab Muslims conquered Tiflis in 645, and it continued under Muslim rule until 1122. After a brief golden age the Georgians again came under Muslim control, alternating between Savifid Persians and Ottoman Turks. The church endured this period of time with difficulty and looked for assistance from their Orthodox neighbors in Russia toward the end of the eighteenth century. The identification of the Georgian nation with its Orthodox identity was strengthened in this period, as the church was often the guarantor of linguistic and national identity and the legal authority for the nation.

Soon after the Russians annexed Georgia (1801), the autocephaly of the Georgian Church was rescinded (1811) and it became a part of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Georgian Church became one of the institutions in Georgia through which the imperial government attempted its program of Russification.

The Georgian Church reclaimed its autocephaly in 1918, as Georgia was proclaiming its independence. This short period of breathing space was quickly constricted with the imposition of Soviet power, and nearly seven decades of atheist education and oppression took a devastating toll on the Georgian Church. As in the rest of the USSR, church buildings were closed, confiscated for other purposes, left to ruin, or destroyed. The role of the clergy was restricted, and many came under suspicion as possible KGB agents.

The reign of Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II from December 1977 marked a new beginning in the life of the Georgian Church. Slowly, Ilia began to restore episcopal sees and reopen churches. In October 1988, the Tiflis Theological Academy was opened. With the changes of perestroika and glasnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Georgian Church continued a dramatic revival. By the end of the 1990s dozens of churches had been rebuilt and many new ones built.

During the first decade of Georgia's new independence the church struggled to find its place in society and in relation to the state. Georgian politicians, especially the first president Zviad Gamsakhurdia, have used and misused their ties to the church. The new Georgian Constitution not only guarantees freedom of religion and conscience but gives the church a place of historical honor. This place of honor was given further definition and practical meaning by a Concordat signed by the government and the church on October 14, 2002.

The Georgian Church was encouraged to join the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1961, and Ilia II has served as its president. Internal pressures from conservatives helped to further the decision of the Georgians to leave the WCC and other ecumenical bodies during the spring of 1997.

There has also been considerable persecution of non-Orthodox religious communities, including Baptists, Pentecostals, and Jehovah's Witnesses, in the post-Soviet period, some of it violent. The Orthodox responsible for this persecution are generally persons excommunicated by the Georgian Church. Some within the church, however, have participated either by direct violence or by an elevation of rhetoric against the non-Orthodox.

See also: byzantium, influence of; georgia and georgians; orthodoxy; russian orthodox church; russification.


Babian, Gorun. (2001). The Relations Between the Armenian and Georgian Church: According to the Armenian Sources, 300610. Antelias, Lebanon: Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia.

Mgaloblishvili, Tamila, ed. (1998). Ancient Christianity in the Caucasus. Surrey, England: Curzon.

Paul Crego

Georgian Orthodox Church

views updated Jun 11 2018

Georgian Orthodox Church. The autocephalous church of Georgia, the republic situated in the Caucasus between Russia and Armenia.

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