Christianity became the official religion of the Georgian kingdom of Kartli in 337AD, and afterwards helped unite Georgians into a single kingdom. Originally dependent on the Byzantine patriarchate of Antioch, the Georgian Church achieved increased self-government over time, until in 1010 it was granted its own patriarchate. Since that date, save for an interlude between 1811 and 1917 when the Church was subject to direct rule from Moscow, the Catholicos-Patriarchs of all Georgia have presided over its fortunes.
The current Catholicos-Patriarch is Ilia II, born Irakli Ghudushauri-Shiolashvili in 1933. After his theological training in Moscow, he was ordained priest in 1959 and became a bishop in 1967 before being elected patriarch in 1977. Although, unavoidably, his training meant that he was used to operating within the tight constrictions imposed upon the Church by the Soviet system, he was adept at using whatever leeway he had in order to promote the role of the Church within Georgian social and political structures.
By 1989, the Georgian Church had regained much of its former influence and prestige under Ilia’s guidance, seeing a considerable increase in the number of functioning churches, clergy and monastics. When the Soviet Union began to collapse, he took a very public part in the push for independence. He participated in the anti-Soviet demonstrations in April 1989, and by the time independence was declared in 1991 he had the acknowledged status of a civic as well as religious figurehead of first rank.
So universally admired is Ilia that a 2013 poll gave him the accolade of being Georgia’s most trusted national figure, with a 94 per cent approval rating. In the turbulent years since independence he has been a calming presence, calling for dialogue and peaceful solutions during the civil war in the 1990’s, while in the conflict with Russia he managed to combine outspoken advocacy of Georgia’s cause with maintaining an outstretched hand to Moscow through his contacts with the Kremlin.
Ilia’s theological and social conservatism, although it may raise eyebrows abroad, apparently sits well with the Georgian people. His outspoken opposition to the social acceptance of homosexuality, for example, found a willing audience among the protesters – not always entirely peaceful – who forced the cancellation of a rally in support of gay rights in Tbilisi in 2013. Not all Georgians endorse his calls for restoration of the monarchy. There is, however, one issue were he does seem to have had a noticeable impact not just on public opinion but also on his nation’s destiny, and that is his initiative to boost its birth rate.
Like many countries, Georgia by the turn of the millennium was not attaining replacement levels for its population. In 2007, Ilia II offered to baptise and become godfather to any child born to a family already having at least two children whose parents are religiously married. The role of godparent is taken very seriously among Orthodox Christians, and being baptised by the Patriarch is a considerable honour. Georgian families have apparently flocked to take up the offer. According to some reckonings, Ilia II has more than 30,000 godchildren.
Ilia presides at mass baptisms four times a year. There have been claims that his move has had a significant impact in reversing demographic decline. Could one man, however influential, really turn around the numbers in this way? Ilia’s baptisms represent about 5.8 per cent of the total births in Georgia over the last 10 years, or about a third of the births of children into families counting at least two previous children. This is a statistically significant sample. Moreover, overall births have gone from about 50,000 a year in 2007 to about 58,000 in 2016.
During this decade, while births of first children declined and second births stagnated, third or higher births nearly doubled between 2007 and 2010, and climbed steadily thereafter to more than 12,000 per year, from their 2007 low of just over 5,000. Births to married women – remember that Ilia’s offer only extends to them – rocketed in the two years after 2007 to almost double their number in that year. Although they have declined from their 2009 peak, they continue to outperform significantly births to unmarried mothers, which have followed a generally declining curve.
Has Ilia saved Georgia, as some of his followers enthusiastically maintain? Statistics like these are of course difficult to use as indicators of direct causation. Still, what cannot be denied is that since the mass baptisms began, the fertility rate has soared to above-replacement levels and has stayed there.
Not everyone will look favourably on what might be seen as an attempt at social engineering by a hierarch with views so out of tune with liberal Western values. But Georgians themselves will overwhelmingly see it as a beneficent influence exercised by the Patriarch and his Church – nobody should forget in this context that for small countries like Georgia absorption by larger neighbours has always been a perceived threat to national survival.
Elsewhere, where this preoccupation may be less pressing, the patriarch looks unique in two ways: he is a Soviet era Church leader who has maintained his authority in a post-USSR world, and a religious authority figure whose prestige does seem to have had a influence on the real life behaviour of thousands of believers.
Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is the parish priest of Hedon and Withernsea in Middlesbrough diocese
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