Christianity became the official religion of the Georgian kingdom of Kartli in 337AD, and afterwards helped unite Georgians into a single kingdom. Originally dependent on the Byzantine patriarchate of Antioch, the Georgian Church achieved increased self-government over time, until in 1010 it was granted its own patriarchate. Since that date, save for an interlude between 1811 and 1917 when the Church was subject to direct rule from Moscow, the Catholicos-Patriarchs of all Georgia have presided over its fortunes.

The current Catholicos-Patriarch is Ilia II, born Irakli Ghudushauri-Shiolashvili in 1933. After his theological training in Moscow, he was ordained priest in 1959 and became a bishop in 1967 before being elected patriarch in 1977. Although, unavoidably, his training meant that he was used to operating within the tight constrictions imposed upon the Church by the Soviet system, he was adept at using whatever leeway he had in order to promote the role of the Church within Georgian social and political structures.

By 1989, the Georgian Church had regained much of its former influence and prestige under Ilia’s guidance, seeing a considerable increase in the number of functioning churches, clergy and monastics. When the Soviet Union began to collapse, he took a very public part in the push for independence. He participated in the anti-Soviet demonstrations in April 1989, and by the time independence was declared in 1991 he had the acknowledged status of a civic as well as religious figurehead of first rank.

So universally admired is Ilia that a 2013 poll gave him the accolade of being Georgia’s most trusted national figure, with a 94 per cent approval rating. In the turbulent years since independence he has been a calming presence, calling for dialogue and peaceful solutions during the civil war in the 1990’s, while in the conflict with Russia he managed to combine outspoken advocacy of Georgia’s cause with maintaining an outstretched hand to Moscow through his contacts with the Kremlin.

Ilia’s theological and social conservatism, although it may raise eyebrows abroad, apparently sits well with the Georgian people. His outspoken opposition to the social acceptance of homosexuality, for example, found a willing audience among the protesters – not always entirely peaceful – who forced the cancellation of a rally in support of gay rights in Tbilisi in 2013. Not all Georgians endorse his calls for restoration of the monarchy. There is, however, one issue were he does seem to have had a noticeable impact not just on public opinion but also on his nation’s destiny, and that is his initiative to boost its birth rate.

Like many countries, Georgia by the turn of the millennium was not attaining replacement levels for its population. In 2007, Ilia II offered to baptise and become godfather to any child born to a family already having at least two children whose parents are religiously married. The role of godparent is taken very seriously among Orthodox Christians, and being baptised by the Patriarch is a considerable honour. Georgian families have apparently flocked to take up the offer. According to some reckonings, Ilia II has more than 30,000 godchildren.

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