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Church Strength in Georgia

Darrell Jackson

Eastern Orthodox Churches

In Georgia the Divine Liturgy is celebrated by three Eastern Orthodox traditions. The largest is the official, autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia. Additionally, dwindling numbers of ethnic Russians and Ukrainians living in Georgia worship in Russian Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox congregations. In addition, Ukrainian Orthodox are deeply divided into a number of competing jurisdictions, although they will not be considered here.

Georgia also is home to several dissenting Orthodox groups who normally refer to themselves as “Orthodox traditionalists.” Most are conservative and are trying to revive an earlier, more traditional form of Orthodox practice. The most widely known groups are Old Believers (Old Ritualists), divided into two groups: The smaller Popovtsy who recognize the authority and role of priests and bishops over their congregations, and the larger Bezpopovtsy who, as their Russian name suggests, reject the authority and role of priests and bishops. The Christian Orthodox Church in Georgia (True Orthodox Church) claims its apostolic succession through a Metropolitan Bishop in Boston, USA, and believes itself to be the only faithful Orthodox remnant in Georgia, in opposition to the Georgian Orthodox Church led by Patriarch Ilia II, which it considers to be heretical. Smaller groups, including the Gldani Orthodox Eparchy, the Dukhoboriy Orthodox, and the Malakani  Storoveriy, may also be noted.

Oriental Churches

The Armenian Apostolic Church has existed in Georgia for many centuries. Its bishop resides in Armenia and is represented in Georgia by a vicar general. Other Oriental churches include small numbers of Syriac Orthodox Christians (distinct from the Assyrian, or Syrian, Church of the East, which is also known as the Chaldean-Rite Eastern Catholic Church).

The Syriac Church was formerly known in English as the Syrian Orthodox Church but adopted its current name in 2000. The Oriental churches are distinct from Eastern Orthodox churches in that they reject the Chalcedonean Ecumenical Council and its Christological formulations.

Catholic Churches

The Roman Catholic bishop resident is responsible for the care of three distinct Catholic traditions: Latin-Rite Catholic; Eastern-Rite Catholics who celebrate the Eastern liturgy but recognize the primacy of the Pope; and Chaldean-Rite (Syrian or Assyrian Churches of the East) and Armenian-Rite congregations. (The latter are not to be confused with the Armenian Apostolic Church.)

Protestant Churches

Protestants in Georgia find that their right to erect places of worship is severely restricted by the manner in which local authorities “interpret” legal regulations. In practice, it is nearly impossible for any non-Orthodox congregation to build a place of worship without the consent of the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate. Even for those churches that enjoy reasonably good relationships with the Patriarchate, establishing places of worship is not at all easy. The Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church of Georgia has been able to develop new congregations only by using private homes for worship. Despite restrictions, Evangelical Christians-Baptists are growing: from one church in Tbilisi prior to the collapse of Soviet power to almost 100 congregations and home Bible-study groups today. The majority of these congregations belong to the Evangelical Christian-Baptist Church of Georgia. A smaller Association of Evangelical Christian-Baptist Churches consists of “non-registered,” independent churches. Both groups tend to be ethnically Russian.

The largest group of Pentecostals belong to the Pentecostal Union though, again, significant numbers of independent Pentecostal and other charismatic fellowships exist outside the Union. Some Pentecostal congregations that are unable to secure permission to build churches continue to meet in forests around Tbilisi in the summer.

Ethnic and Geographical Factors

The disputed regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia reflect ethnic questions that have an ecclesial corollary. Georgian Orthodox Churches in Abkhazia, for example, are generally led by Russian priests from Russia. Georgian clergy, including the metropolitan, are not permitted to enter the region. Many Georgian Orthodox cross into Georgian territory to attend the Divine Liturgy in the Georgian language. 

Especially important for predicting trends in church attendance, the Georgian population has been decreasing by an average annual rate of 6.7 percent since 1989. This decrease is most marked among ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Between 1989 and 2002, the population decreased by 799,100 (14.5 percent) as a result of outmigration. This movement is important in trying to understand general patterns of church attendance and especially in trying to predict future patterns of attendance in those churches traditionally supported by ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, including their respective Orthodox, Independent Baptist, and Pentecostal churches. The year 2002 witnessed a reduction in the Slavic community’s strength from 341,000 to 67,700, that is, from 6.3 to 1.5 percent of the population.

Edited excerpt of the author’s findings originally presented to the Third International LausanneResearchers’ Conference, August 2005, as part of larger study, “Beyond the Preamble: Searching for Godin a Secularizing Europe.”

Notes:

1 This table updates and revises 2000 data, drawing on the fullest possible range of sources, including a personal visit in August 2004. I am still cautious about being definitive about the relationship of the respective size of Orthodox communities and their active members. I am also cautious about what I suspect is over-reporting by Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also is extremely difficult to estimate the size of the Pentecostal and Charismatic communities. I am not aware of any reliable data for the relative sizes of Chaldean and Armenian-Rite Catholics. My estimates are based on the 39 congregations for the two rites combined, reported to me personally. I assume that 600 Muslims visit a mosque at least once per month and that 1,200 Armenians attend worship at least once a month at each congregation, based on the higher figure of 30 congregations.

2 The official Orthodox Web site reports that 65 percent of the population identify with the Orthodox Church (www.patriarchate.ge). The figure for active members derives from a Bible Society report compiled within Georgia and therefore credited with a reasonable level of accuracy. The caution of Mark Elliott should be borne in mind when assessing these figures, as they are intended to refer to the Orthodox “community”: Mark Elliott, “Analysis of World Christian Encyclopedia Figures for Post-Soviet Christians,” East-West Church & Ministry Report 9 (Summer 2001), 4-5.

3 Estimated from number of congregations, assuming 40 per congregation. The majority of these congregations met in homes.

4 Catholic Hierarchy Web site (http://catholic-hierarchy.org/diocese/dcauc,html), viewed 10 September 2004.

5 R. Roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey (Rome), 187.

6 www.ebcgeorgia.org reports 15,000 active members in 50 churches and 53 mission stations, 15 August 2004.

7 This total includes 65 churches and 53 preaching stations. Personal e-mail from Bishop Malkhaz, April 2005.

8 Web report indicated “over 1,000 members” in early 2004.

9 The U.S. State Department (2004) estimates 9,000 Georgian and Russian Pentecostals.

10 Based on a report of 500 soldiers, adherents, and friends attending a central act of worship in 1999.

11 www.adventiststatistics.org. Figures are active members for 2002. Reports indicate a strength of over 300 in 2003.

12 Six registered churches plus four “companies” (www.adventiststatistics.org/view_summary.asp?FieldstD=222829), April 2005.

13 http://www.watchtower.org/statistics/worldwide_report.htm. Figures are memorial attendance for 2003. Membership given is 15,200. Witnesses have been active in Georgia since 1953.

14 Census data for 2002 indicates 3,600 Jews in Georgian-controlled territory, representing 95 percent of the total population of Georgia. Our figure is adjusted to allow for Jews living in the autonomous regions of Georgia at a similar level to that elsewhere in Georgia.

15 U.S. State Department Reports (2000-04) variously report the size of the Muslim community at between 8 and 9.9 percent of the population. This is considerably influenced by the presence of Chechen refugees in the valley of northern Georgia.

16 Estimated from reports and photographs of visits to the Bahai community in Georgia. I err on the side of overestimating.

17 Estimate based on experience of the size of Hare Krishna communities in Central and Eastern Europe. The community in Tbilisi also operates a vegetarian restaurant.