The Late 1970s and After

Upon his enthronement as catholicos-patriarch of all-Georgia in late 19 77, Ilia II embarked on a programme to rejuvenate the Georgian Church. Vacant ecclesiastical positions were filled, church buildings were refurbished, and some new ones constructed. Serving as a president of the WCC from 19 79 to 1983, he drew global attention once again to Georgian Christianity and strengthened his Church's commitment to the ecumenical movement. Ilia also engaged the national movement, especially in the years of Mikhail Gorbachev's reforms. In early April 1989 Georgians protested in the streets against what they perceived as threats by the Ap'xazians (Abkhazians) of western Georgia. It was the catholicos-patriarch who addressed the crowd, rallying the protesters while urging calm. The brutal suppression of the demonstrators by Soviet troops on 9 April and its aftermath helped propel Zviad Gamsaxurdia to power. Gamsaxurdia's Round Table-Free Georgia Bloc enjoyed enormous support in the October 1990 elections, and independence was declared from the Soviet Union on 9 April 1991, the second anniversary of the 9 April massacre. The following month Gamsaxurdia was elected president of the Republic of Georgia.

Though Gamsaxurdia held the reins of power only until January 1992, the consequences of his regime for the Georgian Church continued to resonate. Unlike the Menshevik-dominated Republic of Georgia earlier in the century, Gamsaxurdia's Georgia aligned itself closely with the Georgian Orthodox Church. The Church was crucial to Gamsaxurdia's vision of Georgian unity. He made prominent public appearances with Patriarch Ilia, and the state government specially endorsed the proselytizing efforts of the Georgian Church. In addition, the mantra 'Georgia for Georgians' was often heard. Gamsaxurdia reasoned that a strong Georgia depended first and foremost upon ethnic unity among the Georgian majority; the non-Georgian populations of the republic were termed 'guests' and, in Gamsaxurdia's mind, should not expect equal rights with the majority.

Gamsaxurdia made innumerable enemies. In late December 1991 a coup was launched against the president and he was forced to flee the capital in January. Ironically, Gamsaxurdia eventually ended up in the care of the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudaev, who championed an independent Chechnya. Back in Georgia, the junta invited back the former Soviet ruler of Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze. Although the Georgian Church remained a favoured institution in Shevardnadze's Georgia, the large-scale official assault against ethnic minorities was for the most part rescinded. The exact legal relationship of the Church and state was still being debated in parliament in fall 2002. It remains uncertain how the Rose Revolution and the inauguration of the reform-minded Mixail Saakashvili in early 2004 will affect this situation. However, Saakashvili and his allies have maintained good relations with the patriarchate. Indeed, just prior to his official inauguration as president, Saakashvili took an oath administered by Patriarch Ilia II over the tomb of King Davit' II Aghmashenebeli at the monastic complex of Gelat'i near K'ut'aisi.

At the outset of the twenty-first century, the Georgian Church is again at a crossroads. Suppressed by the Russians and Soviets and treated with indifference by the government of the first Republic of Georgia, it was briefly given special legal status under Gamsaxurdia and its leaders are now struggling to carve out a privileged place in post-Soviet Georgian society. With the flood of new freedoms has come a resurgence of religious practice in Georgia. But a substantial number of Georgians have turned their backs on the Georgian Orthodox Church and have joined various Protestant sects in particular. Not since the eras of Nino and Vaxtang Gorgasali has Christianity in Georgia been so multifarious. Missionaries from western Europe and North America have entered the country in large numbers, and Georgian Church authorities have responded to the challenge in various ways. Some have called for a special legal status for their organization, and some have even advocated the legal banning of 'foreign' religions in Georgia (ironically, as medieval Georgian sources themselves acknowledge, Christianity itself began its existence in Georgia as an imported religion). These issues lay at the heart of the 1997 crisis. In April of that year, monks from several prominent Georgian monasteries published an open letter to Ilia II criticizing the ecumenical movement as 'heresy'. In particular, they attacked 'western Protestantism' and the ecumenical movement's endorsement of women in clerical activities, its indifference to and even support of homosexuality, and its emphasis upon the 'inclusive' language of the Bible. Archimandrite Giorgi of the Shio-Mghvime monastery and his companions insisted there could be only one church and that any compromise was tantamount to heresy. Much of this anti-ecumenical attitude was the result of Protestant missionary activities in post-Soviet Georgia.

The debate broke into the open, opposition rapidly mounted, and the Georgian Church stood on the verge of internal schism. Ilia reminded dissenters of the virtues and benefits of ecumenism, but to no avail. Just a short time later, on 20 May 1997, Ilia summoned ecclesiastical leaders and the decision was reached that the Georgian Church would immediately withdraw from the World Council of Churches and also the Council of European Churches. The patriarch was in the awkward position of having been a WCC president. It is instructive that in his communication of 20 May, Ilia did not characterize the ecumenical movement as heretical; clearly, he was compelled to this act as last resort in order to avoid full-blown schism within the Georgian Church. Anti-ecumenical sentiment remains strong in some quarters. Most dramatically, the former Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili has been charged with orchestrating attacks upon non-Orthodox religious groups active in Georgia. Mobs armed with clubs and carrying crosses, icons, and banners have frequently interrupted meetings of nonOrthodox groups including Pentecostalists and Baptists. By fall 2002, there had been nearly a hundred registered acts of violence against Jehovah's Witnesses, one of the prime targets of 'Father Basil' and his thugs. Despite protests from governments in Europe and the United States, Georgian authorities have been slow to crack down on this campaign of violence and intimidation and others like it. Mkalavishvili's is an extreme and unfortunate solution to a very real problem facing the contemporary Georgian Orthodox Church: the proper place of religion, and especially Georgian Orthodoxy, in a newly independent, post-Soviet, democracy.

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