The country of Georgia is an officially secular nation which welcomes followers of all major world religions to practice their faith. Religion in Georgia reached a major turning point in 326 AD, when the nation is largely recognized as the second country in the world (after Armenia) to have adopted Christianity. Today roughly 80% of Georgia’s population identifies as Christian, with most belonging to the Georgian Orthodox Church, the most powerful and influential religious institution in the country.
Islam claims the second largest number of followers in Georgia, most notably among Abkhazians and Georgians from Adjara and other regions in the south. Azerbaijanis, most of whom live in Kvemo Kartli Region, and the majority of the Kist people in Pankisi Gorge also identify as Muslim.
Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks and Russians have their own Orthodox churches in the country, and there are also a small number of Catholics. Georgia is likewise home to one of the oldest Jewish diasporas in the world and to even smaller communities of Lutherans and Doukhobors, a pacifist Christian sect of Russian origin.
Georgian Orthodox Church
According to Orthodox Christianity, in 44 AD Mary the Mother of Jesus and the apostles cast lots to determine where each of them should travel to preach the Holy Word. Ancient church tradition claims that Iberia (now the country of Georgia) was the first of the Four Earthly Domains allotted to Mary, who is now celebrated by Georgian Christians as a patron saint of the country.
Georgian church chronicles state that Mary was unable to travel to Iberia herself and, in accordance with the will of God, remained in Jerusalem. In her stead, she asked the apostle Andrew to go in her place. In those days, there were two kingdoms in what is now modern Georgia: Kartli (Iberia) in the east and Egrisi (Colchis) in the west. Apostle Andrew preached in both, a fact confirmed both by Georgian chroniclers and by Greek and Latin church authors. In the village of Atskuri (close to modern-day Akhaltsikhe), Andrew’s prayer even brought a dead man to life, a miracle which resulted in the first conversions to Christianity in the land. Before he left the village, Andrew placed an image of the Virgin Mary on a wooden plaque as an icon to which the townspeople could pray. The Atskuri Icon of the Mother of God is believed to be the first of its kind and is currently kept in the Georgian National Museum in Tbilisi.
Local Christians were persecuted by authorities for centuries until Christianity became the official state religion in Georgia in 326 AD. Credit for this transformation is given to St. Nino, a female evangelist believed to have born in the Roman province of Cappadocia. After seeing a vision in which the Virgin Mary told her to preach the Gospel in Iberia, St. Nino left for the Caucasus. According to traditional accounts, the young woman erected a large wooden cross atop an old pagan shrine outside of Mtskheta, capital of Iberia. Miraculous events which began to occur around the cross drew pilgrims from all over the Caucasus, and today the site is widely known as Jvari (Cross) Church. St. Nino is also credited with converting King Mirian III of Iberia to Christianity, thus paving the way for the faith to become the official state religion.
Christianity had become firmly established in Georgia by the end of the 4th century, yet in the ensuing centuries Georgia came under attack by the Persians, Arabs, Turks and Mongols, all of whom adhered to other religions. Most of these invaders tried to force the Georgian people to abandon their beliefs, and many were martyred. Despite this tragic chapter in the history of the Georgian church, the faith of the people stood the test of time.
Since the 9th century, the Georgian Orthodox Church has been governed by the Catholicos-Patriarch. In the 12th century, at the height of the Georgian Golden Age, King David the Fourth (better known as King David the Builder) ordered the construction of Gelati Monastery and Academy near Kutaisi. Before long, the institute became known as one of the greatest theological and scientific schools in the Orthodox world. It was hardly alone, for many of the churches and monasteries which dot the Georgian landscape today also served as educational centers in their heyday.
After Georgia became a part of the Russian Empire in the early 19th century, the Georgian Orthodox Church lost its autonomy and was integrated into the Russian Orthodox Church. In contradiction with the official beliefs of the local church, even the Georgian Patriarchate was abolished. On the brink of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Georgian authorities declared their country independent, an act which allowed the sovereignty of the Georgian Church to be reestablished. During the ensuing decades of Soviet rule, atheism, although never officially declared a state ideology, was actively promoted by the ruling party. Most churches were forced to close and many priests were arrested. The revival of Christianity in Georgia came only with perestroika in the 1980s.
Since 1977 until the present day, the head post in the Georgian Orthodox Church has been filled by Ilia the Second, Archbishop of Mtskheta and Tbilisi. Today Christianity in Georgia is at one of its strongest points in history. The country now welcomes thousands of religious tourists annually, who flock to view the relics housed in its historic churches and museums and to visit the many holy places around the country.