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Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church
საქართველოს სამოციქულო ავტოკეფალური მართლმადიდებელი ეკლესია
Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church logo.gif
Coat of Arms
Founder Apostle Andrew, Saint Nino
Independence Antioch in 486, Russia in 1917
Recognition Autocephaly recognised by the Church of Antioch in 486 and recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1943 and the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1990.
Primate Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II
Headquarters Mtskheta and Tbilisi, Georgia
Territory Georgia
Possessions Western Europe, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Russia
Language Georgian
Adherents 3,500,000[1]

The Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church (Georgian: საქართველოს სამოციქულო მართლმადიდებელი ავტოკეფალური ეკლესია, sakartvelos samocikulo martlmadidebeli avtok'epaluri ek'lesia) is one of the world's most ancient Christian Churches, and tradition traces its origins to the mission of Apostle Andrew in the 1st century. It is an autocephalous (self-headed) part of the Eastern Orthodox Church since 4th century A.D. Georgian Orthodoxy has been a state religion in parts of Georgia since the 4th century, and is the majority religion in that country.

The Constitution of Georgia recognizes the special role of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country's history but also stipulates the independence of the church from the state. The relations between the State and the Church are regulated by the Constitutional Agreement of 2002.

Christianity in ancient and feudal Georgia

According to tradition, when the Apostles were sent out to preach the Gospel to the nations of the world, the Apostle Andrew the First-called went to preach in the districts of the Caucasus corresponding to modern Georgia (ancient Colchis and Iberia), taking with him the Holy Mother's Uncreated Icon (an icon of the Virgin Mary that tradition holds was not made by human hands). Another tradition says that the Apostle Simon the Canaanite (better known in the West as Simon the Zealot) also travelled to the Caucasus, and Georgian tradition holds that he preached in Western Georgia and was buried near Sokhumi, in the village of Anakopia. Another Apostle, Saint Matthias, is said to have preached in the southwest of Georgia, and to have been buried in Gonio, a village not far from Batumi. Some Christian sources also attest to the presence in Georgia of the Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus who came north from Armenia.

The first Georgian Eparchy was founded in Atskuri (south-west Georgia), traditionally by the Apostle Andrew.

The oldest Georgian church was constructed in the beginning of the 3rd century, in the village Nastakisi (Kartli province of Eastern Georgia).

A page from a rare 12th century Gelati Gospel depicting the Nativity

St Nino of Cappadocia

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From 303, Saint Nino of Cappadocia (left) later honoured as 'Equal to the Apostles', preached Christianity in the Georgian kingdom of Iberia (Eastern Georgia). In 327, it was adopted as the state religion by the rulers of Iberia, King (later Saint) Mirian II and Queen (later Saint) Nana. Western Georgia, then part of the Roman Empire, became Christianised in a gradual process that was complete by the 6th century. The Western Georgian Kingdom of Egrisi declared Christianity as the state religion in 523. The country adopted Saint George as its patron saint. Georgian Orthodox tradition also holds that Georgia is a country under the special protection and intercession of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and affection for the Theotokos runs very deep in Georgian Orthodox consciousness.

Georgian Christianity was historically influenced by the church of the Byzantine Empire, and has always been part of the wider Eastern Orthodox Church. From the 320s, the Georgian Orthodox Church was under the jurisdiction of the Apostolic See of Antioch. The Georgian Orthodox Church became autocephalous (independent) in 466 when the Patriarchate of Antioch elevated the Bishop of Mtskheta to the rank of Catholicos of Kartli. In 1010, the Catholicos of Kartli was elevated to the honor of Patriarch. From then on, the premier hierarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church carried the official title of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia.

Between the 6th and 9th centuries, Georgia underwent a cultural transformation as monasticism flourished. Important monasteries were founded at a number of locations, notably the Iviron monastery on Mount Athos in Greece, where many important religious works were translated from Greek into Georgian. Significant works of hagiographic literature were also produced in Georgian, such as the "Life of Saint Nino" and "Martyrdom of the Holy Queen Shushanik".

Well-known centers of Christian culture included the Georgian Monastery in Sinai, the monastery complex (Iveron) on Mount Athos (the well-known "Wonderworking Iberian Icon of the Mother of God" is located in this Monastery), Georgian churches in the historic province Tao-Klarjeti (part of Turkey since the 16th century), the Georgian Petritsoni Monastery in Bulgaria, Bagrati Cathedral, Gelati Monastery and Academy, Ikalto Monastery complex and Academy, Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, the monastery in Martvili, and the monastic complex at Davidgareja.

Outstanding Georgian representatives of Christian culture included Evagrius Ponticus (Evagre Pontoeli, 4th century), Peter the Iberian (Petre Iberieli, 5th century), Euthymius of Athos (Ekvtime Atoneli, 955-1028), George of Athos (Giorgi Atoneli, 1009-1065), Arsen Ikaltoeli (11th century), and Epraim the Lesser (Eprem Mtsire, 11th century).

The invasions of Genghis Khan in the 13th century and Tamerlane in the 14-15th century greatly disrupted Georgian Christianity. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, both church and state were divided into eastern and western parts, and accordingly the two parts of the Church were ruled by two Catholicos-Patriarchs. In 1801 the Kingdom of Kartl-Kakheti (Eastern Georgia) was occupied and annexed by the Tsarist Russian Empire. On July 18, 1811, the autocephalous status of the Georgian Church was abolished by the Russian authorities, despite strong opposition in Georgia, and the Georgian Church was subjected to the synodical rule of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Georgian liturgy was suppressed and replaced with Russian.

The Georgian Orthodox Church in modern times

"The Glory of Iveria", a well-known icon by Mikhail Sabinin allegorizing the Georgian Orthodox Church and the legends surrounding it.

Following the overthrow of the Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917, Georgia's bishops unilaterally restored the autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church on March 25, 1917. These changes were not accepted by the Russian Orthodox Church or by the invading Soviets in 1921, who subjected the Georgian Orthodox Church to intense harassment. Hundreds of churches were closed by the government and hundreds of monks were killed during Stalin's purges. The independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church was finally recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church on October 31, 1943, but it was still subjected to constant pressure and attrition in the post-war anti-religious campaigns of the Soviet authorities.

On March 3, 1990, the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized and approved the Autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church (which had in practice been exercised or at least claimed since the 5th century) as well as the Patriarchal honour of the Catholicos. Georgia's subsequent independence in 1991 saw a major revival in the fortunes of the Georgian Orthodox Church.

A special role of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the history of the country is recognized according to Article 9 of the Constitution of Georgia and Constitutional Agreement between State and Church.

About 82% of Georgia's population identified themselves as Georgian Orthodox in 2002 (the remainder being Muslim, Russian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic and Other). In 2002, it was reported that there were 35 dioceses and about 600 churches within the Georgian Orthodox Church, served by 730 priests. The Georgian Orthodox Church has around 5 million members around the world (of whom about 3,670,000 live within Georgia) and administers, as of 2007, 35 eparchies (dioceses).

Catholicos-Patriarchs of Georgia since 1917

The Georgian Orthodox Church is managed by the Holy Synod. The Holy Synod is headed by the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the first of whom was Melkisedek I (1010-1033). Since 1977, Ilia II (born in 1932) has served as the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia and Archibishop of Mtskheta and Tbilisi.

Tsminda Sameba church, 2200 m high, Caucasus mountains in the back, rising more than 4000 m above sea level.

  • Kirion II (1917-1918)
  • Leonide (1918-1921)
  • Ambrosi (1921-1927)
  • Kristefore III (1927-1932)
  • Kalistrate (1932-1952)
  • Melkisedek III (1952-1960)
  • Efrem II (1960-1972)
  • Davit V (1972-1977)
  • Ilia II (1977-Present)