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Religion and Forced Displacement in Georgia

Article by Tornike Metreveli

July 23, 2020

Religion and Forced Displacement in Georgia


Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia has witnessed three large waves of internal forced migration as a result of armed conflicts. The armed conflicts in the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia (1992-93) and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia (1991–2 and 2008) resulted in the displacement of 273,411 people, overwhelmingly ethnic Georgians, from South Ossetia and Abkhazia to Georgian administered territory.[1] In addition to the history of internal displacement, as a result of its location at the geographical crossroad of Europe and Asia, and its experience of domination under the Ottoman and Russian empires, Georgia’s religious field has evolved in the context of a fusion between religious and ethnic identities. In the course of its interactions with political power structures, the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) managed to normatively intertwine the concept of nationhood ‘being Georgian’ with the religious identity of ‘being Orthodox Christian’. Hence, what might seem like a contradiction of the universalism of Christian theology became gradually entrenched through church’s collaboration with the state. Ethnic and religious minorities were excluded from the church’s national project. The two largest minority religious organisations in Georgia, namely the Islamic community and the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC), struggled to compete for fundamental rights and liberties. With major religious organisations busy with advancing their organisational interests or challenging existing power relations, internally displaced persons (IDPs) were marginalised in the ongoing process of Georgia’s major economic, social, political transition.


Given Georgia’s situation in the early 1990s, with crumbling state institutions and a dysfunctional state apparatus, the integration or even accommodation of IDPs was not a priority area of policy-making for the Georgian government. This manifested itself in the non-existence of a state integration strategy to address the issues posed by the significant internal population displacement. Only in 2007, by the 47th Decree of the Government of Georgia was the first ‘State Strategy towards IDPs’ adopted. It outlined the mechanisms and objectives of the Georgian state with regard to the integration of IDPs in Georgia’s socio-political life, as well the approach to facilitating dignified living conditions for the internally displaced.


After escaping the two wars of the early 1990s, most IDPs ended up living in so-called IDP settlements, which were often regular schools, old Soviet hotels and kindergartens that had been repurposed to accommodate them. Due to endemic corruption at state-level, the aid programmes designed for Georgian IDPs often failed to reach their target audience. The involuntary character of their migration resulted in an impoverished and socio-politically disengaged population of IDPs in the new settlements. In 2008, however, after the war with Russia, the new IDP population of Georgia received considerable assistance from both Georgian state institutions and from external donors such as USAID and the European Union (EU).[2] The scale of these two waves of internal displacement, as well as their respective proximity to armed conflicts differed significantly. If the Abkhazian war of the early 1990s led to the displacement of (by various estimates) between 200,000 and 230,000 people, the more recent armed conflict in Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia forced 26,885 Georgian citizens to flee their homes in the conflict zone.[3] Lastly, internal displacement and armed conflicts affected all major religious organisations in Georgia in terms of limiting access to their canonical territories (eparchies) and their ability to conduct pastoral duties in the breakaway territories.


Religion, ethnicity and population

According to the most recent census conducted in Georgia in November 2014, the population of the country is 3.71 million. 57.2 per cent of the population lives in urban areas. Ethnic Georgians constitute the dominant group with a majority of 86.8 per cent. 6.3 per cent of the population are Azerbaijani and 4.5 per cent Armenian, while other ethnic groups (e.g. Russians, Ossetians, Yezidis, Ukrainians, Kists, Greeks, Assyrians and Jews) constitute 2.4 per cent of the total population. The census states that 83.4 per cent of the Georgian population adheres to the Orthodox denomination of Christianity represented by the Georgian Orthodox Church.[4] Muslims are the second largest religious group constituting 10.7 per cent of the total population, while 2.9 per cent of the population belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC).[5] It is essential to map the ethno-religious composition of the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, which is the largest and most populous city of the state and also accounts for the largest share of IDPs (105,956 people), who live across nine districts of the capital.[6] 89.9 per cent of the population of Tbilisi are ethnic Georgians. Armenians constitute the second largest ethnic group with 4.8 per cent, while Azerbaijanis rank as the third most significant ethnic group of the capital with 1.4 per cent of the total population.


Table 1. Numbers of IDPs in Georgia.[7]


Due to several historical and geographical factors, the majority of the Muslim population of Georgia is distributed predominantly among two regions; the Autonomous Republic of Adjara (hereafter Adjara) and Kvemo Kartli. Adjara, in western Georgia, borders Turkey and has a historical pattern of migration and higher conversion rates to Islam compared to the rest of Georgia. Unlike Kvemo Kartli, where Islam is represented predominantly by Azerbaijani minorities, in Adjara, the majority of the Muslim population are ethnic Georgians. According to the latest census, the total ethnic composition of Adjara is overwhelmingly ethnic Georgian (96 per cent). However, the religious composition is not similarly homogenous. For example, Orthodox Christians constitute 54.5 per cent of Adjara residents, whereas 39.8 per cent are (Georgian) Muslims. The majority of residents of Batumi, the largest city of Adjara, identified as Orthodox (68.7 per cent) or Muslim (25.4 per cent). However, four out of five municipalities in Adjara have a majority Muslim population; specifically Keda (62.1 per cent Muslims versus 31.3 per cent Orthodox), Shuakhevi (74.4 per cent Muslim vs 23.5 per cent Orthodox), Khelvachauri (56.3 per cent Muslim vs 36.4 per cent Orthodox) and Khulo (94.6 per cent Muslim vs 4.1 per cent Orthodox).[8] In terms of the IDP population, Adjara region has 6,830 IDP residents.[9] Kvemo Kartli, which borders both Armenia and Azerbaijan, has the most significant religious minority population of Muslims at 43 per cent, compared with 51.4 per cent Orthodox. Unlike in the mountainous Adjara region, where adherence to Islam does not translate into Turkish or Azerbaijani ethnic belonging, in Kvemo Kartli, ethnic and religious identities are firmly fused with each other. Ethnic Azerbaijanis constitute 41.8 per cent of region’s population, whereas Georgians represent 51.3 per cent. The region’s religious composition is mostly Orthodox Christian (51.4 per cent), compared with 43 per cent Muslim. Another region with a significant Muslim population is Kakheti region in eastern Georgia, where 85.7 per cent profess Orthodox Christianity and 12.1 per cent adhere to Islam, while three municipalities have both a Muslim and Armenian presence. Georgia’s only region where ethnic Georgians are in the minority is Samtskhe-Javakheti with 50.5 per cent ethnic Armenians compared with 48.3 per cent Georgians. Orthodox Christians constitute the majority with 45.2 per cent of the population, although 40 per cent of residents belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church.[10]


Religion-state relations

The Constitution refers to the Georgian Orthodox Church and defines the relationship between the Georgian state (not the Georgian government) and the church in Article 9 on the relationship between the state and the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia.[11] According to the Constitution adopted by the Parliament in 1995, Paragraph 1 of Article 9 states that “the State declares full freedom of belief and religion, and also recognises the special role of the Apostolic Autocephaly Orthodox Church of Georgia in the history of Georgia and its independence from the State”.[12] Here, a seemingly standard normative text of the Constitution moves in the direction of religious particularism by codifying the special status of the church in Georgian history through the Constitution. Paragraph 2 of Article 9 of the Constitution determines the nature of church-state relations:


The relationship between the state of Georgia and the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia shall be determined by a constitutional agreement, which shall be in full compliance with the universally recognised principles and norms of international law in the area of human rights and freedoms.[13]


The same agreement is recognised as a normative act and in line with Law of Georgia on Normative Acts. According to the Law of Georgia on Normative Acts, Article 7 in Paragraph 4 states that the constitutional agreement “…take[s] precedence over any other normative act, unless it contradicts the Constitution of Georgia and the Constitutional Law of Georgia.”[14] This legal framework has shaped Georgia’s religious field ever since the adoption of the Constitutional Agreement in 2002.  The ‘constitutional’ status of the agreement gave it priority over other domestic legislation.


In 2011, the Georgian government under President Mikheil Saakashvili (2004-2013) initiated an amendment to the Civil Code of Georgia granting other religious organisations the right to registration.[15] This entitled other religious organisations with the legal status of either LEPL or non-profit (non-commercial) legal entity, and gave them a legal status equal to that of the Orthodox Church. This legal change was accompanied by a massive rally led by the Georgian Orthodox Church.[16]


Among the major issues of disagreement between the three main religions in Georgia is the ownership of churches, and responses to ambivalent funding practices. If one examines the Georgian government’s funding practices concerning religious organisations between 2004-2013 (Table 2), it is clear that the GOC has overwhelming privilege compared to the AAC and the Islamic community.


Table 2. State Funding of the Georgian Orthodox Church after the Rose Revolution[17]


The increase in the GOC’s funding coincides with a major political crisis, which the Georgian government has undergone since 2007.[18] If one compares the total combined funding that was allocated to the Georgian Patriarchate during the presidency of Saakashvili with the funding available to other religious denominations, one sees a significant difference. Between 2004 and 2013, the GOC received 149,190,000 (GBP 48,438,311), while, for example, the Armenian Church received financial assistance amounting to only 35,624 GEL (GBP 11,566) from 2009 to 2012,[19] although it is the second biggest Christian organisation in Georgia, and the third largest religious minority group. The disproportional trend continued under the Georgian Dream government. In partial and symbolic compensation for the damage to religious communities during the Soviet regime, the Islamic community of Georgia received GEL 1.1 million (GBP 357,142) in 2014 whereas in 2015 this amount to GEL 2.2 million (GBP 714,284). Furthermore, the State Agency for Religious Issues recommended the transfer to the Islamic community of 44 mosques currently in the possession of the Division of Muslims of All Georgia (aka the Department of Muslim Affairs) which the Georgian government created in 2011.[20]


Religion and forced displacement

To examine how GOC approaches the IDP problematic, it worth reflecting on the critical document that represents GOC’s vision and priorities. The so-called pastoral letters which this section will analyse are annual documents read by the close affiliates of Patriarch Ilia, the spiritual leader of the GOC, at Easter and Christmas. The whole process of reading a pastoral letter is transmitted live by the Georgian Public Broadcaster and the Georgian patriarchate’s TV channel. The official known author of the pastoral letters is Patriarch Ilia himself. The letters constitute the official position of the church on the most important societal themes. A close reading of the Easter and Christmas pastoral letters of the past 40 years since the enthronement of Patriarch Ilia II (1978–2018) reveals that forced migration/IDP themes are referred to considerably less frequently than general themes of human security. The prevalent issues discussed in the pastoral letters alongside territorial questions are abortion, demography and drug abuse.


Overarching themes of solicitude and empathy towards the internally displaced are expressed in his 1994 Christmas pastoral letter, in which the patriarch encourages IDPs from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to ‘not lose faith, hope and love’ and to ‘not be stumbled and pray’.[21] In the same letter, the patriarch refers to the IDPs as refugees, which raises the question of whether the IDPs were referred to in the context of ‘our refugees’ thus distinguishing the internally displaced from ‘us, Georgians’? Or was the patriarch’s refugee reference a terminological insensitivity pointing to the GOC’s position of othering the new migrant groups who had been forcibly displaced? One can only speculate whether or not this reference constitutes an essential feature of the GOC’s vision of nationhood. Similarly, in the 1995 Easter pastoral letter, Patriarch Ilia refers to the restoration of territorial integrity and expresses his hopes and prayers for ‘refugees’. This is yet another dimension of how the GOC connects the concepts of fragmented territoriality with the narrative of the victimisation of IDPs.


No publicly available data shows how the GOC engages with IDPs from an institutional perspective. For example, the GOC’s office runs 90 education and social institutions (seminaries, schools and kindergartens) with 2,000 employees and approximately 18,000 children attending them.[22] Also, the GOC operates between seven and nine orphanages, which house between 1,200 to 1,500 children. The Patriarchate of the GOC has 16 charity and development foundations, ten of which focus on charity, education, and the construction and restoration of churches. Data becomes untraceable due to the constitutional agreement between the Georgian state and the GOC, as a result of which the state institutions have no access to church organisations, and the GOC is not obliged to report their activities[23].


The Armenian Apostolic Church receives considerably less funding than the GOC. Hence, relatively little is known about its activities. From the content analysis of the statements of clerics, and the websites of diocesan departments and cultural centres run by the AAC in Georgia, the primary mission and objective of the AAC’s Department of Youth Affairs is to ‘unite the Armenian youth of Georgia around the Church, to promote Armenian education and inculcate a sense of commitment to the lofty ideals of preservation of national identity’.[24] In addition to helping the academic progress of the ethnic Armenian population of Georgia, the objectives of the department also list the ‘civic education of the youth’ as its primary objective. Along the lines of civic education, the church sees itself as a promoter of human rights education in order to ‘help [the Armenian population] to integrate into Georgian civil society’.[25] The AAC organises various pilgrimages and visits to historical places in Armenia and ‘Artsakh’, which is internationally recognised as Nagorno-Karabakh.


Further activities of the church with youth groups serve what it calls ‘the unification of the Armenian youth studying at different universities’. The mission statement concludes with reference to the patriotic duty incumbent upon this department of the AAC: ‘the patriotic duty of the youth organisation is to take care of the Tbilisi Pantheon of the Armenian Writers and Public Figures ‘Khojivanq’(the Armenia Pantheon of Tbilisi). Voluntary groups of young people organise clean-up activities, plant trees, [and] take care of the Pantheon.’


Institutionally and legally codified strategies diverge from the actual practice and implementation of those action plans. The government is either unable or unwilling to ensure the consistent execution of those integrative strategies. The Georgian Muslim community in Adjara continue to face ‘othering discourses,’ which manifest themselves in public pressures on the practising of their religion. The fusion of Orthodox Christian identity and the concept of Georgianness is strong enough to occasionally legitimise the practice of enforced conversion to Christianity and other discriminatory practices.[26] The official publicly available report on activity between 2013 and 2018 of the Division of Muslims of All Georgia has no reference to forced migration. The report mostly focuses on achievements with regard to advancing the popularity of Islam in Georgia which manifested in:


Fifteen new mosques, over 170 amortised mosques have been repaired…dozens of mosques were provided with the necessary equipment…4 websites owned by the Muslim Division and two internet TV stations…up to 1,000 TV shows. One hundred fifty kinds of books, newspapers, posters and magazines of various kinds have been published in large circulation…more than 50 conferences, 70 seminars…50 trainings.[27]


Due to the lack of access to the internal ruling and policy documents of the GOC, the AAC and the Division of Muslims of All Georgia, the policy paper relies on the available information from the pastoral letters, official websites and annual reports. These institutionalist accounts do not exclude individual humanitarian practices by various priests or imams. However, without ethnographic research, documentation of those practices remains challenging.


Policy perspectives

As a result of three armed conflicts, Georgia experienced waves of internal displacement. The first two armed conflicts in 1990s coincided with the weakening (if not failure) of Georgian state institutions, a polarised post-war political climate and no real accommodationist state strategy to address new challenges of large-scale displacement. In 2007, almost 15 years after the first large-scale waves of internal displacement, the Georgian government attempted to create a systematic strategy and plan for the IDPs. Following the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, although the scale of internal migration was considerably lower, the government still demonstrated more readiness to act than in the 1990s.


For their part, Georgia’s religious organisations underwent the processes of transformation and institution-building in parallel with the state itself. The competition between the three most significant religious groups – Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians – manifested itself in disagreements over property rights, funding policies and the overall status of religious organisations in society. This was met by fierce criticism from the GOC leadership and led to protests against the government. Despite the significant financial advantages, which the church maintained along with the clientelist government practices under Saakashvili’s presidency, the status of other religions was something that the GOC claimed to find threatening and challenging to its dominant position on the religious market place. In parallel with liberal inertia that allowed the religious minorities to register and exercise similar legal rights, the Georgian state wittingly or unwittingly engaged in ethno-religious particularism as reflected in the selection of national symbols in general and the flag in particular. Not only did the government ignore the possible preferences of Muslim Georgians with regard to the use of Christian symbols of the national flag, it also completely ignored the Islamic theme in the design of the new flag in the Muslim-Georgian inhabited region of Adjara.


With the secular identity of the Georgian state still in the making, IDPs are little different from other minorities when it comes to integration and accommodation. The ethno-religious markers of distinction are still robust pillars of identity claim-making. Whether one is an IDP, a Georgian Muslim or an ethnic Armenian, the binary category of ‘Georgian therefore Orthodox’ still finds expression in symbols, funding practices and in the execution of the law. Whether, and in which direction this can or will unfold remains to be seen, but minorities – ethno-religious or the internally displaced – continue to challenge the normative status quo in order not to become Georgia’s forgotten ones.


Tornike Metreveli is an International Postdoctoral Fellow and a Lecturer at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. His latest publications include, ‘Rhyming the National Spirit: A Comparative Inquiry into the Works and Activities of Taras Shevchenko and Ilia Chavchavadze’, Nationalities Papers, 2019, 47 (5); ‘The Making of Orthodox Church of Ukraine: Damocles Sword or Light at the End of the Tunnel? RGOW 4-5, Religion & Society in East and West, 2019; ‘The State’s Guardian Angel? The Georgian Orthodox Church and Human Security, in Lucian N. Leustean (ed.) Forced Migration and Human Security in the Eastern Orthodox World, London: Routledge, 2019.


Cover photo: ‘Morning prayer at the Georgian Orthodox Church of St. George, Zestafoni district, Argveta, October 2019’. Copyright: A. K. Printed with author’s permission.


[1] ‘IDPs figures’, Ministry of IDPs issues, available at All websites were accessed on 9 November 2019.

[2] Metreveli, 2016.

[3] Ministry of Refugees and Accommodation of Georgia (2020) IDP Issues – General Information, available at ; UNHRC states that as a result of 2008 war ‘approximately 30,000 remained to face possible long-term displacement’ (UNHRC (2009) Protection of Internally Displaced Persons in Georgia: A Gap Analysis, available online from

[4] Sakartvelos 2014 tslis mosakhleobis sakoveltao aghtseris dziritadi shedegebi [‘2014 General Population Census Main Results’], 2014, available at, pp. 1-6.

[5] Ibid, p. 7-9.

[6] ‘IDPs figures’, Ministry of IDPs issues, available at

[7]  Ibid.

[8] 2014 General Population Census Main Results, 2014, available at, pp. 18-45.

[9] ‘IDPs figures’, 2019.

[10] Ibid, p. 281.

[11] Websites of Religious Organizations:  The official website of the Georgian Orthodox Church; The official website of the Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia Apostolic Church ; The official website of the Division of Muslims of All Georgia/Department of Muslim Affairs

[12] Art. 9, Paragraph 1.

[13] Ibid, Art. 9.

[14] Law of Georgia on Normative Acts, Article 7 – Interrelation of normative acts, Paragraph 4, available from

[15] Tornike Metreveli ‘Georgian Orthodox Church: Whither the foreign policy role?’, 2018,, available from

[16] Thousands Protest Law on Religious Minorities Legal Status (10/07/2011),, available from

[17] 1 GBP equalled an average 3.08 Georgian Lari (GEL) according to the National Bank of Georgia’s official exchange rate between 2001-2018. The daily exchange rates of Lari against foreign currencies between 2001-2018 are available at; Transparency International, ‘An overview of public financing provided to the Georgian Patriarchate’, August 2nd 2013, available at

[18] For a detailed analysis of political events and their context see Metreveli (2016).

[19] Ibid, p. 11.

[20] ‘Islami sakartveloshi: politika da integracia’ (Islam in Georgia: Policy and Integration) (2016), Caucasian House publication, Tbilisi: Georgia, p. 40.

[21] Father Giorgi Zviadadze (ed.), Epistoleni (Pastoral Letters), Tbilisi: Exclusive Print +, 2012. The text has been published in Georgian (my translations), p. 198, sashobao 1994 (Christmas, 1994).

[22] Transparency International, ‘The companies and other organizations related to the Georgian Orthodox Church’, September 5th 2014, available at

[23] Ibid.

[24] Department of Youth Affairs, 2019, available at

[25] Ibid.

[26] Zviadadze, Sophie, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being Muslim and Georgian: Religious Transformation and Questions of Identity among Adjara’s Muslim Georgians’, Region: Regional Studies of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia 7, 2018, no. 1, pp. 23-42.

[27] ‘Sruliad sakartvelos muslimta sammartvelom bolo khuti tslis angarishi tsarmoadgina’ [trans. the Division of Muslims of All Georgia Presents the Report of Past Five Years], 2018, available from

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