Georgia has a very rich culture that derives from the ancient religions practiced in the country, as well as the country’s unique geographic location between Europe and Asia. Despite centuries of foreign domination, Georgia has been able to preserve a unique cultural tradition that combines all the diverse elements of its population. To view Georgia’s dance and art, to hear its music, and to read its literature is to be transported to a world that is part Asia, part Europe, part Christian, part Muslim, and somehow complete Georgian. The culture evokes a sense of spirituality with the mountains through ancient traditions while adding the dimension of constant change brought about by centuries of conquest and foreign travelers.
The Georgian identity has been closely tied to religion since the introduction of Christianity in the early fourth century. As a result, about 60 percent of all Georgians are Christians of the Georgian or Armenian Orthodox Churches (normally called the Armenian Church). About 11 percent of the population is Muslim, although these are divided among three major groups and several smaller groups. The country has had a Jewish population for more than 2,500 years, as well as a small population that follows the ancient Yezid religion. There also are small groups of Catholics and Protestant faiths.
Christians and Muslims rarely interact. Most small towns and villages contain people practicing only one religion. In Tbilisi, the capital, a large part of the city is devoted to Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship and serves as a city within a city. The Georgian Orthodox Church is very conservative. It uses an early translation of the Bible, predating the King James version by several hundred years. Today’s Georgian monks and priests are still very fundamentalist. They regard Catholicism and Protestant religions as dangerously liberal and maintain that there are no other legitimate churches. Members practice their faith using religious icons, statues, and other symbols both at home and in the churches. Their ancient churches and monasteries are elaborately decorated with murals, frescoes, and statues. Even the ancient tombs are decorated with stonework and engravings. Georgian cemeteries are often small and devoted to just one family. However, they can be very intricately designed, sometimes including buildings and benches.
Easter celebrations frequently occur at graveside. Culturally, the Muslim communities fit in well with the Orthodox churches. Although their beliefs are different, both religions are conservative. During the Soviet period, religious practice was strongly discouraged. Although religious leaders in some countries were persecuted and the churches closed, the Georgian Orthodox Church was allowed to function openly. No one is sure why the Soviet Union let this occur when officials were so adamant that other religions could not function.
The Georgian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a big revival since the end of the Soviet era, with old churches restored, new ones built, and monasteries and convents repopulated by monks and nuns. You will often notice Georgians crossing themselves three times when a church comes into sight. As a Christian nation often threatened in the past by Muslim foes, Georgians’ sense of nationhood is intimately bound up with their church.
A small number of Georgians (chiefly in Adjara, which was under Turkish rule until the 19th century) are Muslim, as is the country’s Azeri population, while the Armenians are mostly Armenian Apostolic Christians. Many of the country’s age-old Jewish population emigrated after Georgian independence, but there are still working synagogues in Tbilisi and Kutaisi.
Today most of the population in Georgia practices Orthodox Christianity, primarily the Georgian Orthodox Church. Of these (83.9%), around 2% follow the Russian Orthodox Church. Around 3.9% of the population follow the Armenian Apostolic Church, almost all of which are ethnic Armenians. According to the CIA factbook, Muslims make up 9.9% of the population, and are mainly found in the Adjara and Kvemo Kartli regions and as a sizeable minority in Tbilisi. Roman Catholics make up around 0.8% of the population and are mainly found in the south of Georgia and a small number in Tbilisi. There is also a sizeable Jewish community in Tbilisi served by two synagogues.
The Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church is one of the world's most ancient Christian Churches, founded in the 1st century by the Apostle Andrew the First Called. In the first half of the 4th century Christianity was adopted as the state religion. This has provided a strong sense of national identity that has helped to preserve a national Georgian identity, despite repeated periods of foreign occupation and attempted assimilation.
Georgia has a long history of religious harmony within its borders despite the historical conflicts with the surrounding nations. Different religious minorities have lived in Georgia for thousands of years and religious discrimination is virtually unknown in the country. Jewish communities exist throughout the country, with major concentrations in the two largest cities, Tbilisi and Kutaisi. Azerbaijani groups have practiced Islam in Georgia for centuries, as have Ajarians and some of the Abkhazians concentrated in their respective autonomous republics. The Armenian Apostolic Church, whose doctrine differs in some ways from that of Georgian Orthodoxy, has autocephalous status.