Trans Eurasia travel

Religion

Christianity was introduced to Georgia in the 1st century by the apostle Andrew the First-Called, who travelled around the Black Sea before becoming the first Patriarch of Constantinople, and also by the apostles Simon and Matthew. Armenia was converted to Christianity in AD301 (or perhaps AD314); in AD313 the Roman emperor Constantine granted freedom of worship to Christians and it became the most favoured religion in the empire. However, it didn't become the sole official religion until AD380, while Georgia was converted in AD337, making it the world's second Christian nation.

St Nino, a slave from Cappadocia, cured a child by placing her hair shirt on him and praying; Queen Nana heard of this and Nino cured her by prayer of some unknown malady, and converted her to Christianity. King Mirian followed his wife in converting when Nino was able to cause a thunderbolt to destroy the pagan idols, followed by an eclipse of the sun which she didn't lift until he agreed to convert. However, Christianity was not firmly established until the 6th century, when the Syrian Fathers came from Antioch; it's uncertain whether they were Georgians or Chalcedonians, but it's clear they could speak the language before they arrived. They founded several monasteries in Kartli and Kakheti, such as Shiom-ghvine, Zedazeni, Samtavisi, Alaverdi, Nekresi and Davit-Gareja, and spread the Gospel throughout the country. Between 790 and 861 more monasteries were founded by St Gregory of Khantza. In the 10th century classical texts such as Zeno's On Nature and works by Porphyrius were preserved in Georgian monasteries, and the texts of Buddhism were first translated by St Euthymius in the Georgian monastery on Mount Athos, in Greece. Bachkovo, the second most important monastery in Bulgaria, was founded in 1083 by the Georgian Grigorii Bakuriani, who renounced the governorship of Smolyan and Edirne to be a monk, and his brother Abasius.

For centuries the Orthodox Church was split by theological disputes and heresies; firstly Arianism, which denied the full deity of Jesus claiming that he was created by God, and 'there was a time when he was not'; and then from the 4th century Monophysitism, the doctrine that Jesus had only one nature, rather than divine and human. Finally, in the 5th century, Nestorianism argued against the Virgin Mary being called 'mother of God', claiming she was mother of Christ only in his human aspect. Monophysitism was popular in the monasteries of Davit- Gareja and it survives as official doctrine of the Armenian Church; however, the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Church has followed the official Orthodox line. It was granted autocephaly or self-governing status in AD466; this was abolished in 1811, when authority was transferred to the Moscow patriarchate.

Stalin repressed religion here as elsewhere, but by 1943 he felt hed broken its back and recognised autocephaly. In the post-Stalinist period there was a limited revival in the Church's fortunes, and from 1988 some churches were reopened. However, it never played the sort of role in the nationalist movement that the Roman Catholic Church did in Poland and Lithuania, partly due to its conservative hierarchical nature and its addiction to being allied with authority, and partly due to the Catholicos, Ilia II, having been selected by the KGB.

While the Orthodox Church may seem utterly conservative, many monks are extremely fundamentalist and regard the Catholicos and priests as dangerously liberal. In particular, the decision to join the World Council of Churches was seen as virtually heretical (Orthodox doctrine being that there are no other legitimate churches), and Ilia was forced to reverse this in 1997. Nevertheless the next year he celebrated the 20th anniversary of the election of the Pope, who then visited Georgia in 1999. The True Orthodox sect, which also exists in Russia and Greece, is also active here, and has links with extreme nationalist groups such as the Zviadists. Fundamentalist groups such as Jvari (the Cross) and the Society of Saint David the Builder have been accused of orchestrating attacks on Baptists, Pentecostalists and Jehovah's Witnesses; but Saakashvili has tackled harassment of those following non-traditional faiths, for instance sending police to break into a church and arrest a priest blamed for attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses. There is widespread discrimination against the 14,000-odd Jehovah's Witnesses in particular, due mainly to their pacificism. The tiny Roman Catholic congregation is due largely to Turkish oppression of Orthodox believers in the 17th century, mainly in Meskheti.

As described above, there are various Muslim communities (mostly Shia) and a very long-established Jewish presence, with synagogues in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi. Most of the Kurds are Yezid or openly pagan rather than Muslim, but in fact pagan influences can be found throughout Georgia, and above all in the remoter mountain areas. Decorative motifs are often derived from nature worship, and fertility rites and offerings can be found in many places, notably trees with pieces of cloth tied to the branches, as at a Cornish holy well. This is especially so in Svaneti.

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