Religious Conversions in Ajaria, Georgia

Mathijs Pelkmans

The Ajarian Autonomous Republic is a small triangle of land in the southwestern corner of Georgia, rising up from the Black Sea and sharing border with Turkey. It has an overall territory of 1,798 square miles (2,900 square kilometers)and a population of approximately 400,000.Lower Ajara, including its capital, Batumi, with its seaport and oil refineries, is subtropical, while Upper Ajaria is mountainous.

 In the late 1980s, when restrictions on religion were lifted, AJarians seemed to be converting enmasse to Christianity. A local newspaper of that time reported that 5,000 people had been baptized in Batumi in a single day, and that recently opened churches were unable to seat all the worshippers who had finally been able to “return to their ancestral faith,” Georgian Orthodoxy(Sovetskaia Adzhariia, 29 May 1989). These mass baptisms were not only taking place in Lower Ajaria, with its heterogeneous population, but also  in Upper Ajaria, where the position of Islam was much stronger. Although the church may have interpreted the numerous baptisms as a confirmation of its hope that Ajarians would rapidly “return “to Christianity, it was difficult not to see these

baptisms as opportunistic adaptations to the time or as symbolic gestures toward the nationalist movement. In subsequent years, however, it became clear that there was another current, as lower but more permanent process of conversion to Christianity. This process of conversion proceeded steadily in the lowland – sometimes including the population of entire villages – but was much slower and less predictable in UpperAjaria, where Islam retained an important role in social life.

 Factors in Christian Conversions

Basic factors that made the adoption of Christianity understandable included the amalgamation of Georgian religious and ethnic identity and the difficulties of observing Islam while living in a state that privileged Christianity, both through state policies and through the dissemination of Georgian “high” culture. Conversion to Christianity in Upper Ajaria in the 1990s can largely be understood as converts pursuing a restoration of perceived unity between Georgianness and Christianity that also held the promise of a “modern” future.

 Merging Georgian Orthodoxy and Georgian Nationalism

The start of my fieldwork in Upper Ajaria in May 2000 coincided with nationwide festivities celebrating famous moments in Georgian history. It had been approximately three millennia since the first Georgian state was established and two millennia since Christianity made its entrance into Georgian territory. The Autonomous Republic of Ajaria played a special role in these events because of its unique history. Although the inhabitants of Ajaria are (or were) predominantly Sunni Muslim, the province is believed to bathe site where Christianity first took hold. The memorable year 2000, then, was an excellent occasion for the Georgian Orthodox Church to raise awareness of Ajar a’s presumed deep Christian roots and, moreover, to reinforce its missionary work among the region’s Muslim population. One of the celebrations was procession to the small Muslim village of Didach’ara, the place where the first church in Georgia was supposed to have been built.

 According to the story, the Apostle Andrew built a church in the heart of present-day Upper Ajaria in the first century AD.1The central tenet of undisrupted Christian-Georgian continuity, as propagated by the clergy and the intelligentsia since the 1980s,gives weight to the missionary activities of the Georgian Orthodox Church in Ajaria. According to this myth, Ajarians had never really been Muslim, but rather had always, if only subconsciously, perceived themselves as Georgians and thus, implicitly, as Christians.2 The advancement of this myth did not only write off the Communist period, it obliterated the three centuries preceding 1878, when Ajaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. Although Ajaria had been art of the Ottoman Empire since the end of the16th century, adoption of Islam occurred much later.

 When the Georgian nationalist movement gained influence in the 1980s, one of its major concerns was to defend the interests of the Church along the imagined geographical, historical, and ethnic lines of the republic.3 The nationalist movement and the first leaders of the independent Georgian republic presented Georgian nationality and Georgian Orthodoxy as an indivisible composite. Speeches by the Orthodox Christian establishment as well as the new government were permeated with expressions like a “Georgians Orthodox by nature and way of life” and “Georgia means Orthodox.”4

 Politicians and Religion

Georgia’s first president, ultra-nationalist Zviqad Gamsakhurdia, employed a theocratic image of dominion and envisioned a future for Georgia that would be ethnically pure and closely linked to Christianity.5 The Church was successful in gaining numerous privileges and significant power in local politics and issues such as publiceducation.6 Though Orthodox Christianity did not become the official state religion, the Church was granted special status in the constitution in 2001 for its “significant role in the history of the nation.”

 Religious Conversions in Ajaria, Georgia

The close connection of religious and national identity entity in Georgia implied that even people without strong religious convictions had to take sides. This was true of political leaders in many post-Soviet countries, who were quick to adopt religious rhetoric in political speech. Georgia’s President Eduard Shevardnadze was no exception to this trend. After this former Communist was appointed head of the new Georgian republic in1992, not only did he become a “democrat,” but he also became “a son of the Georgian Church. “Whether or not his baptism was motivated by personal conviction, it was certainly a strategic move that cleverly responded to the dominant mood in the country and showed appreciation for the new role of the Georgian Orthodox Church.8


Whereas Shevardnadze’s turn to Christianity paralleled religious sentiment in Georgia proper, in Ajaria the situation was more complex. Aslan Abashidze, leader of the Ajarian Autonomous Republic from 1992 until 2004, was one of the few political leaders in the former Soviet Union who did not openly express loyalty to a singular faith and avoided answering questions concerning his personal convictions. Muslims stressed that Abashidze was ofAjarian – Muslim – descent and that he therefore took the problems of the Muslim community to heart. Christian supporters, however, pointed out that Abashidze’s grandchildren were baptized and, thus, that he himself was predisposed toward Christianity.

 Islam and Christianity in Competition

Although during the late 1980s and early1990s some 60 mosques had been reopened or were newly constructed, ten years later a number of them were no longer being used. In coastal settlements rumors circulated about the misuse of community funds by “fake” mullahs and the disappearance of grants from Turkish benefactors. Jokes were made about the fact that several of the newly constructed mosques remained virtually empty. During this same period the Georgian Orthodox Church increased its scope of activity. opened in Batumi and other coastal towns, but in the second half of the 1990s churches were constructed inland as well. In 2001, some 15churches were functioning in the lowlands and five new churches had been constructed in Upper Ajaria. A new geographical pattern between Islam and Christianity was taking shape, which roughly corresponded to the locally employed distinction between Lower and Upper Ajaria.

Lower Ajaria

In Lower Ajaria the population had become tightly integrated into Soviet Georgian society as a result of its proximity to urban centers. Intermarriage with “Christian” Georgians and continuing influx of non-Muslim Georgians added to a gradual adoption of Soviet Georgian lifestyles, which, although atheistic in outlook, later came to be identified with Christianity. Accordingly, in Lower Ajaria the process of conversion to Christianity went relatively unchallenged and the Georgian Orthodox Church rapidly expanded its influence. Besides schools were opened, and a significant portion(possibly the majority) of the population was baptized during the first decade after socialism. The influence of the Georgian Orthodox Church was particularly evident in Batumi. In the 1990s,old churches were renovated and new ones constructed, often in prominent locations: along the boulevard, in the historical center of the city, and next to the main market. Priests showed up at official meetings and were invited to be on television shows, and many of Batumi’s youth wore Georgian crosses. But while Christianity made a rapid advance, the desire of Muslims to reconstruct the former Sultan Mosque, which was demolished in the 1930s, was ignored by Ajarian authorities. The call to prayer from the only mosque in town was reintroduced in the early1990s, but it was stopped by authorities shortly thereafter when residents complained about the noise.

 Upper Ajaria

In Upper Ajaria, Islam had continued to play an important role in domestic life during socialism. In the 1980s, when Soviet policies toward religion were softened, local networks were activated to restore Islam. However, this Islamic renewal was severely handicapped because it lacked financial resources and an educated clergy. Moreover, it also lacked links to the economic and political power holders of Ajaria who could have supported its growth. When I conducted my research, Islam was influential only in small mountain communities. Here, villagers participated in the reconstruction of mosques and sent their children to the local madrassas (Muslim schools).

 The situation was different in the administrative centers of the highlands. In the1990s the Georgian Orthodox Church selected these towns as prime locations to start their missionary activity. Their activities frequently collided with the aspirations of Muslim leaders, which made the encounter between Islam and Christianity particularly visible in these towns. For example, Khulo, located 50 miles (80kilometers) east of Batumi, was an important center for both Muslims and Christians. The convergence of two religious traditions in Khulowas mirrored in the close proximity of themosque and the church.

 Oral sources said that the first mosque in Kholo dates from 1829. After a fire destroyed the original wooden building in the 1890s, anew mosque was constructed of stone. This mosque and the attached madrassa made up the largest Islamic complex in Upper Ajaria. Soviet authorities closed the mosque in 1938.Paradoxically, post-Soviet “religious freedom “led to a further marginalization of Islam in Ajaria. Increased expectations of what being a Muslim entailed ran counter to increased demands for displaying loyalty to the Georgian nation. Thus, it was often difficult for Muslims to observe Islamic requirements.

 The initial upswing of Islam in Ajaria, as shaped by elderly Muslim men, was informed by images of a “pre-Soviet Islam.” The portrayal of Muslim life advanced by these elders involved a rejection of the inclusive language of Georgian nationalism. They held on to a distinction between Georgian (Kartveli) and Ajarian (Ach’areli) on the basis that Georgians were Christian and Ajarians were Muslim. This narrative of difference was difficult to accept for those young Muslims who saw themselves as Georgians and whose careers were tightly interwoven with the Georgian state. Young males with more moderate views of Islam displayed preference for a de-politicized and de-ethnicized version of Islam. They claimed that religion and nation were different things and that therefore there was no problem in being simultaneously Muslim and Georgian.

 The tragedy of Islam in the first decade after socialism was that it did not manage to advance a worldview powerful enough to function as an acceptable alternative to Georgian nationalist ideology. The view of the elders was contrary to ideas of Georgian nationality, but it did not offer an acceptable alternative.

 Four Conversion Case Studies

By way of contrast, insight into the complex motivations and effects of Christian conversion can be gained in four personal accounts I recorded in Khulo, the administrative center of Upper Ajaria. The town had important functions for Muslims in the region: It hosted one of the largest mosques in Ajaria, and the deputy mufti and several influential families of Muslim teachers lived there. At the same time, Khulo also functioned as a bridgehead for Christian missionary work. In the 1990s the Georgian Orthodox Church regarded Khulo as a prime location for its missionary activity in Upper Ajaria. In 2000 and 2001 the Christian community was still only a fraction of the town’s total population. The church had 300 members or five percent of the population.

Editor’s Note: The second portion of this article, including the four conversion case studies, will be published in the next issue of the East-WestChurch & Ministry Report.

Edited excerpts reprinted from Mathijs Pelkmans, Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006). Used by permission of the author and the publisher.

Mathijs Pelkmans is Lecturer in Anthropology at the London School of Economics, London, England.


1 I. Bibileishvili and N. Mgeladze, “Pirveladdidach’arashi,” Ach’ara (Batumi), 24-30 August2000; Batumi and Skhalta Diocese website,

2 This view is based on conclusions of Georgian publisher Zaharia Ch’ich’inadze, who collected oral testimonies of conversions during the 1890s:Kartvelebis gamakhmadianeba any kartvelt

gatatreba (Tbilisi: n.p., 1915). See also EkatherinaMeiering Mikadze, “L’Islam en Adjarie: Trajectoire historique et implications contemporaines,” Cahiersd’etudes sur la Mediterranée orientale et le mondaturco-iranien 27 (1999): 241-61.

3 Fairy von Lilienfeld, “Reflections on the Current State of the Georgian State and Nation” in Seeking God: The Recovery of Religious Identity inOrthodox Russia, Ukraine, and Georgia, ed. By Stephen Batalden (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993), 224-26.

4 Zaza Shatirishvili, “Stalinist Orthodoxy and Religious Indifference,” Profile (Tbilisi), 2000, p. 2.

5 Paul Crego, “Wende zum Gottesstaat: Religiöser Nationalismus in Georgien nach 1989,” Glaube2 Welt 24 (no. 2, 1996), 26; Rafik Osman-OglyKurbanov and Erjan Rafik-Ogly Kurbanov,“Religion and Politics in the Caucasus,” in Politicsof Religion in Russia and the New States of Eurasia,ed. by Michael Bourdeaux (Armonk, NY: M. E.Sharpe, 1995), 237.

6 Ghia Nodia, “Georgian OrthodoxyRevisited: Is Georgia Threatened by Religious Fundamentalism?,” Profile (Tbilisi), 2000, p. 3.

7 Tamaz Papuashvili, “K voprosu o printsipakh vzaimootnoshenii mezhdu gosudarstvom I pravoslavnoi Tserkov’iu Gruzii,” Tsentral’naia Aziia i Kavkaz 3 (no. 15, 2001), 164-72.

8 Shatirishvili, “Stalinist Orthodoxy,” 2.