Orthodox Christianity, Nationalism, and Islam in the Republic of Georgia

A large 2017 Pew Research study found a relatively close connection between religious beliefs and national identity in the Republic of Georgia. According to the Pew data, 89 percent of Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. By some measures, the level of religiosity in Georgia is also high, with 99 percent of respondents reporting that they believe in God (as opposed to 49 percent in Estonia and 29 percent in Czechia). Religious belief in Georgia has strengthened markedly since independence and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Pew, 87 percent of Georgians think that their country is “very or somewhat religious today,” with only 25 percent stating that it was equally religious in the 1970s and 1980s. But at the same time, only 38 percent reported daily prayer and only 17 percent said that they attend church weekly. Information on fasting and other important Orthodox religious practices was not reported. (The teachings of the Orthodox Church on fasting are quite strict.)

The same Pew polling also found a strong sense of Georgia national identity. 78 percent of Georgians surveyed reported that they are “very proud to be a citizen of their country,” the highest figure among all central and eastern European countries covered, with 85 percent agreeing with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Georgian culture, moreover, was explicitly linked by most respondents to Orthodox Christianity, with 81 percent agreeing with the statement “being Orthodox is very or somewhat important to truly be a national of your country.”

Such religiously inflected ethnonationalism confronts a challenge in Georgia’s sizable Muslim community, which includes roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. As can be seen on the map posted below, Muslim Georgians are concentrated in two areas, the southwest and the south-center-east. As most Muslims live in rural areas, their presence is exaggerated by this map; of Georgia’s major cities, only Batumi has a sizable Muslim population (25 percent). In Tbilisi, the figure is only 1.5 percent.

Georgia’s two main Muslim areas are demographically distinct. Most Muslims of the southwest follow Sunni Islam and speak Georgian; those of the south-center-east mostly follow Twelver Shia Islam and speak Azerbaijani. Before the 1944, a sizable population of Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims lived south-west-central Georgia; in Adigeni municipality they constituted approximately 75 percent of the population. These so-called Meskhetian Turks were genocidally deported by Joseph Stalin near the end of WWII. Today, only some 1,500 live in Georgia.

But despite the close association of Orthodox Christianity and nationalism in a country with a sizable Muslim presence, there seems to be relatively little overt religious tension in Georgia. One would expect any such tensions as does exist to be most pronounced in the east, where the local Muslim population speaks a language identified with a neighboring country (Azerbaijan) and is largely monolingual. According to the 2014 Georgian census, only 18.7 percent of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia speak Georgian fluently. Not surprisingly young Azerbaijani-speaking Georgians often pursue higher education in Azerbaijan. Yet even so, most members of their community nationally identify with Georgia. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Azerbaijanis in Georgia, “According to the 2008 UN Association of Georgia report, 98% of Azerbaijanis surveyed in Kvemo Kartli considered Georgia their homeland, 96% acknowledged that the problems they face are common to citizens countrywide and around 90% linked their futures with Georgia.”

It is also notable that the ethnic Azerbaijani population in Georgia has increased since independence, rising from 5.7 percent of the national population in 1989 to 6.3 percent in 2014. In contrast, the county’s main non-Georgian-speaking historically Christian peoples – Russians, Greeks, and Armenians – has seen major population decreases in the same period, as will be explored in a later post.

The lack of religious/ethnic tensions in the Azerbaijani-speaking part of Georgia is linked to the generally cordial relations found between the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, which are of long standing. The two countries trade extensively and have cooperated on several major projects, most notably the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Tensions between them have occasionally emerged, however, generally over such issues as football (soccer) rivalries and historical sites. Even the border demarcation remains contentious, due primarily to the presence of a historically important monastery complex that straddles the existing boundary.

The lack of religious/ethnic tension in the Azerbaijani-speaking region of Georgia might also be associated with the general low level of religiosity among the Azerbaijani people. Both Pew and Gallup polling find that Azerbaijan is a largely secular country, with most people reporting that religion is not particularly important in their lives. As the detail of a Pew map of religiosity that is posted below indicates, Azerbaijan groups with Europe rather than the Middle East in regard to intensity of religious belief. Georgia, in contrast, is in an intermediate position.

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