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History of religion

Tradition has it that Christianity came to Georgia between AD 325 and 330 when St. Nino, a holy woman from Cappadocia, cured the Iberian Queen Nana of a strange illness, thus gaining her confidence. Nana's husband, King Mirian, was subsequently converted during a hunting trip when, suddenly enveloped in darkness, he called upon the Christian God, who restored the light. Numerous other legends mark this period. One concerns the erection of a church in the city of Mtskheta during which the central pillar of the church, too large to be raised by human means, suddenly levitated and landed in place by divine intervention. The distinctive shape of the Georgian Orthodox cross is also ascribed to St. Nino, who, upon entering Georgia, took two vine branches and tied them into a cross with strands of her own hair.

The advent of Christianity in Georgia replaced existing pagan beliefs which were based largely upon the pantheon of Greek gods (in west Georgia) and Iranian Zoroastrian beliefs in the east. Both of these had been combined with various Anatolian (probably Hurrian) cults whose followers included pro to-Georgian tribes. The effect of Georgia's conversion to Christianity cannot be overestimated, for it turned the country toward the West and the centers of Orthodox Christian belief and away from the Mazdaism of Iran and the Islam of the Arab world.

At the end of the fifth century, King Vakhtang Gorgasali elevated the bishop of Mtskheta to Catholicos, thus making the Iberian Church autocephalous. Until the seventh century, the Iberian Church swung back and forth between supporting monophysitism and dyophysitism (differing doctrinal positions concerning the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ that arose out of the the Council of Chalcedon in 451). By 609 the Iberian Church definitively sided with the Chalcedonian position and became dyophysite, as opposed to the Armenian Church, which has remained monophysite.

When Russia annexed Georgia at the beginning of the 19th century the Georgian church temporarily lost its independence, the position of Catholicos-patriarch was abolished, and the administration of the Church fell under the authority of the Russian Orthodox church. In 1917 the autocephalous nature of the church was reestablished and a new Catholicos-patriarch was selected. During the 1917-1920 civil war, the church supported the legitimate Menshevik government of Noe Zhordania. With the Bolshevik victory, the church was forced to take a position of loyalty to the Soviet government, and in 1943, after Stalin's intervention, the Russian Orthodox church recognized the autocephalous status of the Georgian Orthodox Church once again.

Like all religions throughout the Soviet Union prior to Gorbachev's reforms, the Georgian Church was supressed and many church buildings were destroyed or turned into museums or concert halls. As a national church, Georgian Orthodoxy has been a powerful rallying point for patriotic yearnings. In 1988, as a result of the new policies of the Kremlin toward religion, the present Catholicos, Ilya II, head-quarted near Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi, began consecrating formerly closed church buildings throughout Georgia. The Georgian Church has been very active in the restoration of these places of worship.

The Georgian Orthodox Church is also an important force in both the spiritual and temporal life of the country. Long concerned about some of the headway that proselytizing "Western Protestant" religions have been making in the country, and responding to growing pressure from concerned priests within his own church, in May 1997 Catholicos-Patriarch Ilya II withdrew his church from two major ecumenical bodies: the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches.

Despite this recent move on the clergy's part, Georgians have always been highly tolerant of other peoples and religions. Tbilisi boasts a Christian cathedral, a mosque, and a synagogue all within walking distance of each other. Jewish communities exist throughout Georgia, especially in the cities of Kutaisi and Tbilisi. However, the war in Abkhazia and the ensuing economic problems have pressured many Jews into emigrating to Israel.

In the autonomous republics of Ajara and Abkhazia, many people follow Islam, having converted during Turkish dominion over these territories. Communities of Moslem Azeris also live in Georgia.

Armenians also comprise part of Georgia's ethnic make-up. Their church is also autocephalous and varies in points of doctrine and ritual from the Georgian Orthodox Church.

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