The bulk of Georgians belong to the Georgian Orthodox Church, one of the most ancient Christian churches globally. However, multiple faiths have swayed Georgia over the centuries owing to its key location along historical tradeways. Islam, Judaism, and pagan credos all added to the country’s religious makeup before officially taking on Christianity in the 4th century AD.
This post will give an overview of the major history of Georgia religions, concentrating on the Georgian Orthodox Church, Islam, Judaism, and pre-Christian pagan beliefs. It will also inspect the current religious demographics and mindsets toward religious freedom in modern-day Georgia.
Overview of Georgia’s Religions
Georgia is a nation positioned at the crossing of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. Religion has played a vital role in forming the culture and identity of Georgia throughout its long history. Today, Georgia persists as a predominantly Christian country, with a rich religious heritage spanning over two millennia.
Georgian Religion Before Christianity
Georgian religion before Christianity, Georgia’s religious beliefs were diverse and varied. The ancient Georgians practiced a form of native polytheism, worshiping a pantheon of deities. Archaeological finds and historical accounts give glimpses into the fascinating religious practices that were common in Georgia before Christianity’s advent.
Christianity’s Rise in Georgia
Christianity first arrived in Georgia in the 4th century AD, establishing it as one of the earliest nations to adopt the faith. A woman named Saint Nino, who was a fervent preacher of the gospel, was instrumental in turning Georgia towards Christianity. The Georgian Orthodox Church looks back to this momentous event in history as the genesis of their tradition, and Christian beliefs have become deeply interwoven into the tapestry of Georgian culture ever since.
Georgia’s Religious Demographics
Although the Georgian Orthodox Church is the predominant religion in Georgia, the country is home to an array of religious beliefs that live in concert with one another. Islam, Judaism, and multiple Christian denominations exist in harmony within Georgia’s borders. Remarkably, Georgia has earned a reputation for religious tolerance and the peaceful cohabitation of its diverse spiritual communities.
Church of Georgian Orthodoxy
During the early fourth century AD, the Georgian Orthodox Church was founded in Iberia, an early Georgian country, as Christianity became the official religion. This esteemed Christian denomination holds great reverence globally. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church played a pivotal role in instilling a profound sense of national pride among the Georgian people. It also facilitated the unification of diverse monarchies and domains under a shared identity.
Georgian Orthodoxy is part of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, along with the Greek, Russian, and other national Orthodox churches. However, the Georgian church has maintained a robust autocephalous (self-headed) status and many unique practices compared to other Orthodox churches.
Religious life in Georgia revolved around the Georgian Orthodox Church for centuries. Monasteries and churches were erected across the country, and religious art and architecture prospered, leaving a rich legacy that continues to attract tourism today.
Islam in Georgia
The Islamic religion first made its way to Georgia in the 7th century AD, not long after the passing of the Prophet Muhammad. As Islam was rapidly spreading throughout the Middle Eastern territory, the Arabs conquered sections of Georgia, thereby introducing the Islamic faith to the Georgian region.
The influence of Islam gradually spread through merchant activities and missionary work, peaking between the 9th and 12th centuries. Many Georgians converted to Islam during this period. Mosques, madrasas (Islamic schools), and other Muslim institutions emerged in the region.
Despite Islam’s early arrival, it remained a minority religion in most of Georgia. Coastal areas and other border regions had substantial Muslim populations due to geographic proximity and trade ties with the Islamic world.
Following the Mongol invasions during the 13th century AD, the Muslim population in Georgia witnessed a decrease. Nevertheless, Islam endured and prospered in concentrated regions across the country, particularly in the southwest. Currently, Muslims constitute approximately 10% of Georgia’s total population, underscoring the lasting presence of Islam within the nation.
One common question is whether Georgia is a Muslim-friendly country. With a majority Christian population, some may wonder about the acceptance and hospitality shown to Muslim visitors. Fortunately, Georgia prides itself on being an inclusive and welcoming destination for people of all faiths. Muslim travelers will find mosques and halal-friendly amenities in major cities like Tbilisi and Batumi, ensuring a comfortable stay during their visit.
Judaism in Georgia
Georgia’s Jewish community dates back approximately 2,600 years by some accounts. After Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem in the 6th century BC, many Jews are said to have immigrated to Georgia. Others believe Jewish traders settled in Georgia long before that, drawn by business opportunities along the Silk Road.
Over the centuries, the Jewish populace largely coexisted in harmony with Christian Georgians, though there were periods of religious persecution and compelled conversions. By the 19th century, around 130,000 Jews resided in Georgia, concentrated in the major urban areas.
During the 20th century, the Georgian Jewish population experienced a considerable decline due to emigration. Today, Georgia barely has 8,000 or so Jews. Nevertheless, Jewish heritage constitutes an integral part of Georgia’s history and national character. Synagogues, cemeteries, artifacts, and other well-preserved Jewish sites are scattered across Georgia.
Current Religious Demographics
Georgia’s religion percentage is around 3.7 million as of 2019. Approximately 83% identify as Georgian Orthodox Christians, while about 10% are Muslims and 3% followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church.
The remaining 4% includes Catholics, Jews, adherents of other faiths, or non-religious individuals. Religious affiliation is a sensitive subject in Georgia, with some tension between the Orthodox Christian majority and Muslim/other minority groups.
Georgia’s commitment to religious tolerance has been deeply ingrained in its history, fostering an environment of acceptance and respect. While occasional tensions may arise over perceived threats to the dominance of the Georgian Orthodox Church, the country continues to make strides toward promoting equal treatment for all faiths.
Minority religious groups, such as Muslims, Catholics, and newer Protestant denominations, have found a place in Georgian society, despite facing occasional discrimination or hostility from conservative segments of society. The government recognizes the special status of the Georgian Orthodox Church, while also allowing other religious organizations to register and receive legal status.
Although proselytizing by non-Orthodox groups is nominally prohibited, Georgia maintains a fairly moderate policy of religious freedom compared to some neighboring countries. Efforts to foster reconciliation and promote respectful dialogue between different religious communities are crucial for Georgia’s ongoing social progress.
So, by embracing diversity and fostering a climate of inclusivity, Georgia has the potential to enhance religious freedom further and strengthen social cohesion.
Georgia’s Religion has profoundly shaped the country’s national identity and historical path over many centuries. The Georgian Orthodox Church particularly provided unity and helped preserve Georgian culture during periods of invasion and instability.
Also, today’s Georgia upholds religious freedom and diversity to an extent. Managing interfaith relations and tolerance will fall to the next generation of Georgians as the country continues modernizing while staying connected to its faith-based roots.