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In Georgia, If You Want To Hear The Ruling Party's Talking Points, Just Go To Church

A Georgian Orthodox priest conducts a Mass at Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi.
A Georgian Orthodox priest conducts a Mass at Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi.

TBILISI -- "When the Antichrist arrives, he will prohibit all religions," the priest said. "He will say your [human] rights are being violated, that you are being abused and misled. And that will be the beginning of the most horrible dictatorship you can imagine. While all previous dictatorships were local, this one will be global."

Father Zurab Tskhovrebadze was preaching from the altar, his voice echoing around the small church in the Saburtalo district on the outskirts of Georgia's capital, Tbilisi. What began as a normal Sunday sermon in the middle of the Orthodox Easter fast quickly descended into a grim prophecy about "a certain group of people" that are trying to change the world order under the guise of "freedom."

By this point, at the end of the church service, some people had already left, and only the most devoted remained. There were now around 40 people, both old and young, hanging onto the priest's every word.

"These people are telling our youth that Christianity doesn't give them free choice," he said. "They think that everything…needs to be reviewed, that there should be a new order that will be free of the moral values of Christianity. I can tell you: The devil has never invented a worse lie."

Easter Eve at the Church of St. John the Theologian in Saburtalo, Tbilisi
Easter Eve at the Church of St. John the Theologian in Saburtalo, Tbilisi

None of them seemed surprised by the priest's words; they had heard many of these themes before. Father Zurab is just one of hundreds of Orthodox priests across Georgia delivering sermons every week -- both online and in person -- with a message that is consistent and often echoes the government's political line: Georgia is in danger and falling prey to foreign forces that are robbing it of its moral values, corrupting the country's youth -- and may well drag it into war in Ukraine.

For Georgians, church is about much more than just religious observation. A large majority of citizens (79 percent) consider the Georgian Orthodox Church the foundation of their nation's identity and 83 percent say it plays an important role in their family life, according to a 2021 survey from the Caucasus Research Resource Centers. The church is a place where communities come together to exchange news, to gossip, and to vent.

The Orthodox Church has also enjoyed freedoms under the ruling Georgian Dream party that other groups have been denied. Despite government officials urging people to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic, churches remained open with the congregation allowed to be on the premises even during curfew hours, and a shared spoon was still used to give communion. Priests also participate in the appointment of Georgia's public defender, a human rights ombudsman. The previous public defender, Nino Lomjaria, was unpopular with the church after she tried to further investigate sexual-abuse allegations at a church-run orphanage.

The congregation gathers in front of the church on Easter Eve.
The congregation gathers in front of the church on Easter Eve.

In this church on the outskirts of Tbilisi, the majority, around two-thirds of the congregation, are women. The elderly come prepared with their own psalm books and candles. They know the order of service off by heart, their ears pricked to hear false notes in the liturgical chants. Mothers come with children who often struggle to stand still in line for communion, while younger parishioners film the sermons with their phones to upload on the church's social media.

This year's Great Fast, which started seven weeks before Orthodox Easter and is one of the most important events of the Orthodox Christian calendar, coincided with a period of political turmoil in Georgia.

Early March was marked by violent protests against the so-called foreign agents law, which would legally oblige any organization getting more than 20 percent of its income from abroad to register as a foreign agent and submit to monitoring by the Justice Ministry. It was dubbed the "Russian law" after one signed by Putin in 2012 and which has since been used to crack down on civil society groups and media.

With the protests escalating, the Georgian parliament ended up rejecting the draft law, even though the government -- and the church -- never stopped advocating for it.

At the time, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili accused protesters of "wearing the uniforms of satanists" and the chairman of Georgian Dream, Irakli Kobakhidze, called critics of the bill "church detractors."

The month that followed was not peaceful either. Protests were held over the legal case of Lazare Grigoriadis, a 21-year-old man facing an 11-year prison sentence if found guilty of throwing Molotov cocktails at the police during the protest. To add to the tension, the liberal-libertarian Pine Cone (Girchi) party organized a protest against mandatory military conscription.

Lazare Grigoriadis
Lazare Grigoriadis

Across Georgia, priests did not shy away from speaking about these political events. While sermons usually start with a religious theme, at the end the priest will focus on contemporary social or political subjects.

"The more unity we convey, the easier it will be to fight all the challenges around us," said Father Archil Khachidze at the Anchiskhati church in Tbilisi on April 17. "Our children and young people are under enormous pressure. They are trying very hard to make them commit mistakes and trying to sow discord among them. These days, they are practically separating people into classes, and we must not let that happen. We need to stay together, stay strong."

For anyone who's listened to Father Archil's sermons before, it's not hard to guess who is the "they" he is referring to. In an earlier sermon, he compared nongovernmental organizations -- and by extension, their U.S. and EU financial supporters -- to a plague of locusts.

"A long time ago I read in a military magazine about the Locust Principle," Father Archil said. "The locusts, when flying together, are a terrible thing: They destroy everything, take down planes, and derail trains. It turns out that all their actions are synchronized: They jump together, they eat the crops together. So, this military principle was named after them."

"Before any shots are fired, various unimportant organizations are usually established in the target country. Some of them protect the environment; some advocate for women's rights; many organizations don't really do anything," the priest said, prompting a woman in the congregation to chime in, shouting out, "Just like here, right?"

"When a country comes under attack," Father Archil continued, "and needs to urgently mobilize its forces, some of [those organizations] say, 'We won't go to war.' Others might say, 'Stop manufacturing bullets, or 'You're polluting the river.' That's why it costs nothing for the government to squeeze one or two of these organizations like locusts, because when a thousand of them start to devour, the country struggles to [mobilize] and fight its enemy."

The Anchiskhati church in Tbilisi
The Anchiskhati church in Tbilisi

The Georgian Orthodox Church is known for its conservatism, especially regarding what is sees as traditional family values. On May 17, 2013, Orthodox believers, including priests, attacked activists at a rally to mark the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, thrashing some of them with stinging nettles. A year later, the church announced that the date would now be celebrated as a "Family Purity Day."

After the Georgian Orthodox Church called for the cancellation of the Tbilisi Pride March on July 5, 2021, conservative, homophobic groups raided the offices of Tbilisi Pride and the activist Shame Movement. One priest, Father Spiridone Tskifurishvili, argued the attackers "had a duty to commit violence…for the motherland, for the country, and for the [church]." In the ensuing violence, over 50 journalists were attacked and injured.

Luka Supatashvili, a priest in one of the biggest Tbilisi suburbs, Dighomi, has often mentioned "the unseen foreign powers" that seek to initiate unrest in the country. Right after the March protests over the foreign agents law, he insinuated in his sermon that the demonstrations were scripted from abroad.

Thousands of Georgians marched on the streets of Tbilisi for Family Purity Day in 2017.
Thousands of Georgians marched on the streets of Tbilisi for Family Purity Day in 2017.

In that same speech, he also alluded to Russia and the war in Ukraine: "Now there is a fight to break apart one of the biggest countries in the world (Russia) and share its wealth. Of course [the Russians] are demonized and others are declared saints, but we have eyes to see and ears to hear…what is being done to our nation."

The narrative on the Ukraine war is just one example of where the Orthodox Church is in lockstep with the Georgian Dream party, which has repeatedly made statements about Georgia being "dragged into war." According to a 2023 Transparency International report, the ruling party has often spoken of what it says is the U.S. desire for Georgia to join the war in Ukraine, with the party saying the EU declining to give Georgia candidate status in June 2022 was punishment for its nonparticipation.

Father Luka's sermon echoed and dovetailed with these narratives. At one point, he shared a personal anecdote about not wanting to fight in Georgia's war against Abkhaz separatists in the early 1990s.

"In the past, we were mistakenly forced to go to war several times. I knew it was not our war. I barely stopped myself, as others were going off to die, but I thought: 'I won't make the devil happy, I won't be deceived.' It was easy for me to go and die, but the hardest thing was to be a man of God."

According to Orthodox priests, though, being a peacenik and not wanting to go to war doesn't excuse young men from military conscription. In their sermons, priests will often target one of their old enemies, the opposition Pine Cone party, which has used a loophole in the law to help hundreds of young men dodge conscription by making them priests in their own religious organization, Pine Cone-Biblical Freedom.

Pine Cone's religious organization has been ostracized by the Holy Synod of Georgia and labeled a "humiliating" organization, with its members losing the right for a church memorial service if they die without repenting. After protests erupted in 2018 following a heavy-handed police raid on Tbilisi's Basiani nightclub following a spate of reported drug-related deaths, Pine Cone publicly supported the decriminalization of marijuana.

Drugs and drug users are a sensitive topic in Georgian society. The 2021 Caucasus Barometer survey suggests drug addicts are the second-least favorable group to have as your neighbors, after criminals.

Referring to "the same people who stood for legalizing drugs," Father Luka asked if the congregation remembered what happened when the government closed the nightclub. "You'd think it was the second coming of Christ," he said. "And mind you, it was a nightclub with a patriotic name -- Basiani (a historical landmark of one of Georgia's famous battles) -- the place that made us heroes. Now we see our youth being corrupted."

Some of Georgia's priests are also online. Father Shalva Kekelia, from a church in the middle-class Tbilisi neighborhood of Vake, is one of Georgia's most popular priests on YouTube, with over 5,000 subscribers. He likes to end his emotional sermons by talking about the damage done to Georgia's young people. After the March protests, he said he was worried about "young people who spend their parents' hard-earned money on getting drunk and taking drugs."

Father Shalva Kekelia
Father Shalva Kekelia

"Sometimes I ask myself, what will become of us? We all know what is happening these days. I say, we'll survive with Christ. We'll survive if we work hard, if we hold the [bible] in our hands, if we become professionals in our field," Father Shalva said in a video of one of his sermons uploaded to Facebook.

"Our path is not toward Europe, Russia, or America; our path is with Christ, and no one but Him can save us. No one needs us, people, remember this well. Everyone wants you to be their servant and slave."

"Amen," the congregation replies together, happy perhaps that they have an important message to take home.

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    Tamuna Chkareuli

    Tamuna Chkareuli is a Caucasus-based journalist and documentary photographer with a keen interest in social issues and urbanism. She's been reporting for RFE/RL since 2021.

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