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Georgian Church marks restoration of autonomy

By Shorena Labadze
Wednesday, March 26

Yesterday the Georgian Orthodox Church celebrated the anniversary of the renewal of its autocephaly, or religious autonomy within Christian Orthodoxy, with Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II holding a service in Sameba Cathedral.

The Georgian Orthodox Church first obtained autocephaly from the Church of Antioch in the fifth century AD, but was subsumed into the Russian Church in 1811. It regained its autocephaly on March 25, 1917, but was not officially recognized until 1990 after a campaign led by Ilia II.

In the fourth century AD, Georgia became the second nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion. The Church was a dominant social presence, but experienced decline after Georgia was annexed first into the Russian Empire, then into the Soviet Union.

“Georgian culture is weaved into Christianity. One comes from another. The base of Georgian culture is religion,” Priest Aleksandre told the Messenger.

The devout saw assaults on the Georgian Church as an assault on Georgia.

“Our many enemies knew that our weak point was our respect for Christianity,” one parishioner said. “The abolishment of autocephaly in 1811 was meant to break the Georgian people’s courage.”

Many churchgoers credit Ilia II, Patriarch since 1977, with reviving church attendance and increasing the flock after years of Soviet-era decline.

A voter values survey commissioned by the International Republican Institute in summer 2007 found 88 percent of Georgians professed Orthodox faith, and 15 percent attended church once a week.

“Our Patriarch has done everything to turn the Georgian people towards the Church,” churchgoer Nino Varadashvili said.