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As many will have noticed, Georgia’s Constitutional Court in late 2017 ruled that consumption of cannabis and cannabis-derived products was no longer to be considered a criminal matter, and that the previous regime of incarceration of people found in possession of cannabis (which could be up to 7 years) would be abolished. Administrative fines were retained as an option for punishment. Even many very conservative people agreed with this ruling, as ruining a young person’s life with imprisonment amongst hardened criminals, as penalty for poor judgement and fairly commonplace juvenile risk-taking behaviour, seemed excessively harsh. Indeed Georgian Patriarch Ilia II in his Christmas homily explicitly asked for greater tolerance of drug addicts by Georgian society and the justice system. He however reiterated the Church’s view that drug addiction is a terrible scourge upon Georgia’s youth and that drug education programmes are urgently needed to warn youth of the risks of drug use, including cannabis.

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In July 2018, a further case was heard by the Constitutional Court to the effect that administrative fines for cannabis possession and consumption should also be abolished, based on the argument that cannabis users hurt only themselves and no other parties. The Constitutional Court agreed with this argument and ruled that administrative fines for simple possession were no longer lawful.

This was widely reported as “legalisation” of cannabis, but in spite of this, cultivation and distribution of cannabis remained in a grey area of the law. Elements within the ruling party structure saw a business opportunity to be exploited and lobbied the parliamentary majority to explicitly legalise the commercial production of cannabis in Georgia and its export and distribution in foreign countries.

The parties in question probably believed they could avoid a backlash from the Georgian Church and other conservative elements in Georgia by:

(1) Insisting that cultivation by private companies be restricted by strict licensing regime, instead of a free-for-all homegrown cottage industry developing.

(2) Proclaiming that cannabis produced over-quota would be destroyed under government supervision, rather than being released onto the local market.

(3) Production to be restricted to export markets (mostly certain EU member states permitting distribution and consumption), so that any health and societal risks attributable to cannabis use would be restricted to “degenerate foreigners”, instead of Georgia’s youth.

Imagine their surprise that this course of action caused near-universal outcry in Georgian society. Libertarian elements were outraged that grow-your-own models and cottage industries would be banned in favour of corporate cannabis farms owned by politically-connected corporations. Churchgoers did not have any faith that there would be no “leakage” of product over the farm gate into the domestic market, where it could be consumed by local youth, which the Patriarch later reiterated. A large proportion of Georgian people felt that their country would develop a bad reputation for hedonism and licentiousness that did not reflect its conservative Christian norms.

Patriarch Ilia’s sermon on August 5 was quite unambiguous

“The decision on legalization of marijuana consumption caused a big concern in Georgia. This is a big mistake. We should remember that permission for drug consumption is hostility towards our nation. I am convinced that those people, who granted this permission  do not agree with it themselves, but due to high pressure they were forced to take it…..We must not forget that if we allow drugs, we should allow drug sale and drug production. This will lead to setting up drug center here, as young people from neighboring countries having such interests will arrive in Georgia. Therefore, I call on everyone, first of all on the government, intellectuals and young people to take care of our homeland and our children”

Large protest marches attended by hundreds of people in the capital on September 16, including clergy, demonstrated the opposition of the people to this commercial cultivation legislation under consideration

In the face of this public opposition, the government backed down from its proposal to license cultivation of cannabis on September 17 and has stated that more public consultation is required before legislation can be tabled. Nonetheless they maintain that they are in the right, the public is being “misinformed” by various parties and that this is only a problem of perception.

An important local context is the recent trend of teenagers and young adults taking “party drugs” at nightclubs and electronic music festivals, with multiple fatalities recorded every month. In a country of only 3.7 million people, such deaths incite great trepidation into the hearts of citizens, particularly the parents of youth worried about their children’s welfare and safety in an uncertain world.

This is one of many issues associated with Georgia’s modernisation and opening up to the outside world. It is also part of the constant tension in any civilisation between the need to grant people the freedom to make their own mistakes and live with the consequences of their actions, and the need to protect the young and vulnerable.

The cannabis lobby have been very active in Georgia for over a decade. As low-THC cannabis grows wild in the hills, it is not hard for people to obtain, but modern commercial cannabis varieties have a high concentration of THC (up to 10 times higher) and a much more potent effect. The arguments for cannabis use, and counterarguments, include:

  • It is helpful for sufferers of glaucoma, cancer and post-operative patients dealing with pain (There is evidence to that effect, and under some circumstances prescription of medical marijuana might be indicated).
  • It is less harmful than tobacco (not true, much higher tar content than tobacco)
  • It has a neutral or positive effect upon mood (people with a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia are far more likely to develop clinical schizophrenia after using cannabis than those who abstain).
  • There is no relationship between light drugs like cannabis and more harmful drugs like heroin (people under the effect of cannabis experimenting with other drugs find opiates to be far more enjoyable, and hence addictive, than those trying opiates without cannabis in their system.)

The role cannabis plays as a gateway drug for other more dangerous intoxicants is a concern.

Regardless of one’s views on full legalisation and legitimisation of the cannabis industry, it is of great importance that education on the risks of drug taking, including alcohol and tobacco, be available to young people throughout the country. The Patriarchate is playing a role in this and there is scope for schools and secular organisations to play a bigger role in providing youngsters with legitimate information, so they may make wise and informed choices.

 

 

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The church choirs of Georgia are an integral part of Georgian spiritual life. It is common to encounter men’s choirs, ladies choirs, mixed choirs and youth choirs. It is very common for such choirs to also have strong capability in Georgian folk song, and many folk ensembles emanated from church choirs.  Choirs from the Greek, Slavonic, Aramaic and English-language parishes of Georgia add further diversity to the mix.

Georgia’s three-part polyphonic vocal style is quite unique, and there are some who consider the polyphony, periodically converging into unison, as being emblematic of the nature of the Trinity itself. The choir of Trinity Cathedral are a remarkable choir, with a strong mastery of traditional sacred music and folk tunes, as well as popularising contemporary sacred music, much of which is written by Patriarch Ilia. Their command of contemporary secular choir music by composers like Giya Kancheli,  Josef Kechakmadze and Zviad Bolkvadze (a talented soloist himself) makes them one of the most versatile and accomplished choirs in the Caucasus.

This concert from 2014 displays their full versatility, from Kakhetian and Gurian folk songs, Patriarch Ilia’s sacred music, contemporary secular choral works and traditional sacred pieces of great beauty.

The choir’s Youtube Channel and Soundcloud repository are well worth following, and of course Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings at Sameba Cathedral are the ideal opportunity for experiencing the choir’s art in person.

 

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As most readers will know, a terrible civil war broke out in Georgia’s northwestern Abkhazia region in the early 1990’s, with huge civilian casualties on both sides and finally, the ethnic cleansing of most of the region’s ethnic Georgian population by Apsuan (Abkhaz) militias and Russian troops.

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The roots of this conflict are disputed, with some saying that chauvinistic policies of the newly-minted Georgian government regarding ethnic minorities created a conflict where none had existed before. Others say that elements of the Russian military and intelligence created the conflict in collaboration with a small number of Apsuan opportunists, as part of the Russian “Divide and Rule” policy mirrored in Moldova and Azerbaijan. It is within the realms of possibility that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Georgia’s Patriarch Ilia was a bishop in Abkhazia in the late 1960’s, so he is no doubt quite well acquainted with many of the identities amongst the Orthodox Christian population of today’s Abkhazia. Native Christians are in the awkward position of being under the recognised canonical authority of the Church of Georgia, at a time when no Georgian clergy are permitted to enter the region. Concurrently some elements in the Moscow Patriarchate have been trying to increase their influence and role in religious affairs in Abkhazia, which is not entirely welcomed by all the Orthodox Christians there. It would not be surprising if local Christians felt they were in the midst of a jurisdictional tug-of-war.

Recently one of Abkazia’s Apsuan clergymen filmed an appeal to the Pan-Orthodox Council, requesting recognition of the Church of Abkhazia as an autocephalous Orthodox Church. It makes for interesting viewing.

Please note that the author does not endorse his views or arguments, and our learned Georgian friends will no doubt find ample opportunities to dispute his historical justifications for autocephaly. It is however important to understand the thinking and arguments of a Christian community who feel their needs are not currently being met by existing arrangements, so that creative solutions may be found.

The blog’s readers are welcome to contribute their comments (in a civil and respectful spirit) in response to his appeal.

The Church of Georgia, presiding over the most ethnically diverse country in the region, has generally done a very good job of managing its mission to ethnic minorities in Georgia. Under the authority of the Georgian Patriarchate, we have two Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, two Greek-language parishes on the Black Sea coast, an Aramaic-language parish in the Assyrian town of Qanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti, and an English-language parish in Tbilisi. Intermarriage between the faithful of different ethnic groups is common. It is not unusual to find Georgians of Armenian, Chechen, Ossetian and Apsuan descent in Georgian or Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, where they are treated the same as any other parishioner.

Abkhazia is also a multi-ethnic region, with churches attended by a mixture of Apsuans, Slavs, Greeks and (in some regions where Georgians remain), Mingrelians. It also has non-Orthodox minorities; Armenian Apostolic Christians, a tiny number of Roman Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Pagans. Just as the rest of Georgia faces challenges dealing with diversity, so does the region of Abkhazia. With few non-Georgian residents of Abkhazia travelling to Georgia since 1991, it is possible that Apsuan attitudes are frozen within the bitter experiences of the early 1990’s, and impressions of the Georgian Church’s willingness to make accommodations for ethnic differences, liturgical language and regional peculiarities are outdated. It is quite possible that Christian communities in Abkhazia could learn a great deal from their co-religionists in the rest of Georgia in this regard.

It is terribly sad to witness schism, both political and ecclesiastical, within Georgia’s borders, and it is to be hoped that two fraternal peoples who have worshipped side-by-side for centuries and intermarried so extensively can achieve a satisfactory reconciliation with time.

 

 

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We wrote previously about the Synaxis of the Primates , at which time the Church was setting the parameters for the discussions to be held between the different Orthodox Patriarchates in Crete this month.

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Since then, there has been significant difficulty in reaching agreement on many issues, including the texts of documents to be released representing the unanimous view of the Heirarchs on many doctrinal issues.

Recently, the Church of Bulgaria requested a delay in the date of the Council until its concerns on several issues could be addressed, including seating at the council, the role of observers (including Latins and Protestants) and doctrinal issues. Unfortunately this was not resolved and the Bulgarian Church has withdrawn from the Council.

The Serbian Church likewise has withdrawn from the Council, citing ” deteriorating relations between us and the Patriarchate of Romania, which are now hard to overcome, due to the anti-canonical incursion of the latter into Eastern Serbia and the founding of a parallel diocese there, which will lead to severing of liturgical and canonical communion of the two neighbouring Churches if the behavior described above is not terminated”.

The Patriarchate of Antioch has an ongoing jurisdictional dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the Persian Gulf, which is unfortunate. There are reports of the Patriarchate of Antioch withdrawing from the Pan-Orthodox Council but the Patriarchate has yet to release a press release to that effect.

Late in May, the Georgian Church released the discussions of its Holy Synod regarding doctrinal concerns they had with the documents released by the Pan-Orthodox Council secretariat. An English translation can be seen here .

Without going into great detail, the Georgian Church’s position on some issues such as mixed-marriages, relations with the Heterodox, and homosexuality is somewhat more conservative than that espoused in the Council’s documents.

On June 13, Patriarch Ilia II sent a letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, advising that the Georgian Church would not be participating in the Pan-Orthodox Council. The minutes of the Georgian Synod meeting are presented here in Greek.

Representative of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Church, Archbishop Andrew of Gori and Ateni, reportedly was quoted as saying;

“The goal of the convocation of the future Council is to demonstrate Orthodox unity before the world community and to express the common position of the Orthodox Church on the burning problems of today”. However, this goal cannot be achieved for several reasons: the Eucharistic communion between the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem has not been restored; in addition to the Church of Antioch, the Churches of Bulgaria and Serbia refused to participate in the Council; several documents including “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World” contain dogmatic, canonical and terminological inaccuracies and require a serious review; the Church of Antioch did not sign the 2016 Resolution of the Primates of Churches whereby it was decided to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council and she did not sign the Council’s Working Procedure either due to the fact that this document cannot be considered approved; the established Secretariat of the Council has proved to be non-functional since it has not been given the right to make decisions, etc.

After that a discussion took place. As is noted in the official report, “In spite of different opinions, the basic position was manifested in that it is possible to solve the existing problems through active work. Therefore, we together with other Churches also ask to postpone the Council until the general unity is achieved”.

It is to be hoped that all these issues may be resolved promptly and that the long-awaited Great Council of all Patriarchates of the Church may occur soon.

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The World Congress of Families is a US-based non-denominational NGO, with the mission:

 to help secure the foundations of society by uniting and empowering leaders worldwide to respect, protect, and defend:

  • the natural family founded on marriage between a man and a woman;
  • parental rights and the welfare of children, including their need for both a mother and a father;
  • the dignity and sanctity of all human life from conception; and
  • freedom of speech, religion, and conscience in an atmosphere of respect for all.

The tenth World Congress of Families meeting will be held in Tbilisi this May, with the attendance of and keynote address by His Holiness Patriarch Ilia.

The organisers recently were interviewed on Ancient Faith Radio; it can be listened to here.

A list of the speakers is provided here ; it includes Orthodox Christians, Roman Catholics, and Protestants in equal measure from around the world. The programme can be found here.

Georgia faces rather different family-related challenges to Europe and the USA. Legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Georgia would be political suicide for any political party proposing it in such a conservative society, and this is unlikely to be an issue for a very long time. We do however face terrible demographic problems, with an ageing population and a fertility rate below replacement, neither of which are conducive to a prosperous economy and a dignified and comfortable life for our citizens. Emigration due to a weak domestic economy is part of the problem, but abortion also is a major problem for Georgia’s population dynamics. Abortions prompted by difficult family economic conditions are very common, and the loathsome practice of sex-selective abortions if the foetus is female is rife. The rather low status of women in traditional Georgian society needs to be aggressively challenged if this vile practice is to be eliminated, and the Church must play its part in popularising a “Daughters are Great!” campaign. When Georgian parents universally understand that their daughters can be professionally successful, bring honour upon the family and support them in old age, substantial progress in abolishing this practice can be made.

For our friends from abroad, Georgia is a very safe and peaceful country with warm and hospitable people, and recent clashes in Nagorno-Karabagh between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces to the distant south have no impact here. If you are considering attending the Congress, I would encourage you to make the trip and enjoy your stay in Georgia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This week, for the first time in many decades, the Patriarchs of the world’s Eastern Orthodox communion congregated in Switzerland to discuss many vital issues. Rather than being designated as an “Ecumenical Council“, which typically focusses on dogma and heresy, this meeting is known as a “Synaxis” (Greek for “meeting”) and is somewhat administrative in flavour, notwithstanding significant theological issues to be discussed. Since the last major congregation of the Church’s patriarchs, many historical developments have created challenges and opportunities for our autocephalous administrations around the world. The collapse of communist dictatorship in eastern Europe and Russia has been conducive to many tens of millions of people returning home to the Church without fear of persecution. The increased freedom of movement of people from country to country over the past century has seen the Orthodox faith spread beyond its traditional milieu in eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East, and indeed spreading throughout ethnic groups not hitherto identified as Orthodox. However, this has created issues of overlapping jurisdictions, and duplicated missionary and charitable efforts. For these issues to be ironed out in a single week would be a Herculean task, but the unanimous will of the Patriarchs to meet on neutral territory to seriously address these issues is a very positive initiative.

His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia and our beloved parish priest from Tbilisi, Father Giorgi Zviadadze of Sioni Cathedral and the Tbilisi Theological Academy, can be seen in the video.

The Georgian Church has numerous parishes outside Georgia’s borders, operating under its authority, but of course in places like France, Britain or the United States, they operate side-by-side with parishes under the authority of Constantinople or many other Patriarchates, all of which are attempting to service the needs of their diaspora as well as evangelising the local population. How potential conflicts or indeed competition between parishes of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church within one city or region may be mitigated is beyond the author’s knowledge, but with God’s help such issues may be resolved.

The persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria, be they of our Eastern Orthodox confession or another Christian group, was of course a major issue to address. Likewise, the fraternal conflict in eastern Ukraine between Orthodox brethren is very distressing for all concerned. The tension between the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine and others regarding the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church(Kiev Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (neither of which have been formally universally recognised as a canonical churches by the Church) , will be an issue that may take many years to resolve.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s press release is provided in full below.

At the invitation of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches took place at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, from 21st to 28th January, 2016. The following Primates attended:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria
Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow
Patriarch Irinej of Serbia
Patriarch Daniel of Romania
Patriarch Neophyte of Bulgaria
Patriarch Ilia of Georgia
Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
Archbishop Rastislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

The following Primates were unable to attend: Their Beatitudes Patriarch John X of Antioch and Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw and All Poland, for health reasons, and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece, for personal reasons. Nevertheless, all three were represented by official delegations of their Churches.

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The Primates of the Orthodox Churches convened to finalize the texts for the Holy and Great Council. In the framework of the Synaxis, on Sunday, 24th January, a Divine Liturgy was held at the Holy Stavropegic Church of St. Paul. Along with the Ecumenical Patriarch, who presided, Their Beatitudes and Heads of the delegations of the Orthodox Churches concelebrated the Liturgy, with the exception of the Head of the delegation of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

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During the Synaxis, whose sessions were held in the apostolic spirit of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4.15), in concord and understanding, the Primates affirmed their decision to convene the Holy and Great Council. The Council will be held at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from June 16th to 27th, 2016. To this end, the Primates humbly invoke the grace and blessing of the Holy Trinity and fervently invite the prayers of the fullness of the Church, clergy and laity, for the period leading to and the sessions of the Holy and Great Council.

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The items officially approved for referral to and adoption by the Holy and Great Council are: The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World, The Orthodox Diaspora, Autonomy and its Manner of Proclamation, The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments, The Significance of Fasting and its Application Today, and Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World. By decision of the Primates, all approved documents will be published.

The Primates also discussed and determined the establishment of a Panorthodox Secretariat, the by-laws of the Council, the participation of non-Orthodox observers in the opening and closing sessions, and the budgetary costs related the Council.

Moreover, the Primates expressed their support for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East and their ongoing concern for the abduction of the two Metropolitans, Paul Yazigi of the Patriarchate of Antioch and Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Archdiocese.

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The proceedings of the Synaxis of the concluded on Wednesday evening, January 27th, 2016, with the closing address by its President, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

At the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy-Geneva, 27th January, 2016
From the Secretariat of the Sacred Synaxis.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s homily provides very sound context for the recently concluded activities. For those interested in more detailed administrative issues, His All Holiness’ keynote address can be read here

 

We are now standing at the crossroads of history. For the major difficulties that our contemporaries are encountering require responsibility that exceeds our ecclesial institutions. Christ is in the midst of history. Christ is in the heart of our life. He walks within time. He passes by us, just as He did in Jericho with the blind man. According to today’s Gospel reading, can we hear him in the crowd? Can we see him, lost as we are in our poverty and mendacity? According to the commentary of St. Ephrem the Syrian, “when our Lord saw that the eyes of the blind man’s heart were open while the eyes of his body were blind, He enlightened the eyes of the body just as those of the heart in order that when the blind man chose to hasten towards Him, he would clearly see his Saviour.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Happy Birthday, Your Holiness! The article from the Georgian government’s media outlet Agenda.ge is worth reading in its entirety, as it provides a concise summary of Patriarch Ilia’s career, the state of the Church in the Soviet era and its current state.

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Long regarded as the most trusted and popular identity in the country, he is particularly respected for his activities in the last decades of the Soviet era. Having been appointed as Patriarch in 1977 with KGB acquiescence, who mistakenly assumed he would be a safe pair of hands to protect USSR imperial interests, he ascertained that Georgian public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favour of a sovereign Georgian state independent of the USSR, and threw his support behind this cause. His address to the crowd in front of Georgia’s parliament on April 9, 1989 , immediately prior to the massacre of civilians by Soviet troops armed with shovels, is very well known here:

The tenfold increase in operating churches and monasteries, fifteen-fold increase in serving clergy, temples overflowing with parishioners every weekend, and widespread attraction of Church life for Georgia’s youth are remarkable achievements under Patriarch Ilia’s stewardship of the Church in Georgia. May God grant him many years to come.

Today the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia Ilia II turned 83. He has lead the spiritual life of the Orthodox Georgian parish for 38 years……

……. The  Prime Minister of Georgia, the  President and the United States’ Ambassador to Georgia released special congratulations today for Ilia II…..

The Patriarch had to take the responsibility of being a Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia in a very hard period, when Christianity was suffering significant suppression from the Soviet Union time ideology. 

Ilia II was born as Irakli Ghudushauri-Shiolashvili in Vladikavkaz, currently Russia’s North Ossetia.

…..He is a descendant of the influential eastern Georgian mountainous clan with family ties with the former royal dynasty  of Georgia – Bagrationi.

In 1967 he was consecrated as the bishop of Tskhumi and Abkhazeti in west, currently occupied region, and elevated to the rank of metropolitan in 1969.

 After the death of the Patriarch David V, he was elected the new Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia on December 25, 1977. 

In the new position Ilia II initiated a range of reforms, enabling the Georgian Orthodox Church to largely regain its former influence and prestige by the late 1980s. 

In 1988 there were only 180 priests, 40 monks, and 15 nuns for the faithful, who were variously estimated as being from one to three million.

 There were 200 churches, one seminary, three convents, and four monasteries. During the last years of the Soviet Union, Ilia II was actively involved in Georgia’s social life…..

….Currently there are about 2,000 acting churches and monasteries in Georgia and up to 3,000 spirituals (parish clergy and monastics). 

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