Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Ajars Shifting from Islam to Christianity

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 25 – As recently as 1991, 75 percent of the Ajars in Georgia were Muslims, but now 75 percent of them reportedly are members of the Georgian Orthodox Church, a shift that a Catholic newspaper has labeled “a unique trend” and one that appears to be part of the continuing sorting out of ethnicities and peoples in the southern Caucasus.

             This development, one that Raffaele Guerra of  the “Vatican Insider” characterizes as “unexpected and surprising, is the latest twist in the complicated history of a group many of whose members consider to be a separate nation but whom Georgians have insisted is subgroup of theirs (

                Because of that Georgian insistence, the Adjars have not been counted separately in any census since 1926.  At that time, they numbered 71,000.  Today, the population of their region is more than 380,000, of whom a sizeable but uncertain share consists of Ajars. And that in turn makes any exact figures on their religious affiliation somewhat problematic.

            Nevertheless, it is clear that the Ajars, who have sometimes been called but do not call themselves “Muslim Georgians,” do appear to be returning to Christianity.  Most of them were forcibly converted to Islam after the Ottoman Empire occupied the area in 1614 and retained their Islamic faith after Russia annexed it in 1878.

            After the 1917 revolution, Adjaria became part of the Georgian SSR as an autonomous territory even though the Georgians did not view them as a separate nationality.  After 1991, Ajaria remained part of the independent Republic of Georgia but was effectively separate under the authoritarian rule of Alan Abashidze.

            In 2004, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili forced Abashidze out and into Russian exile and severely restricted Ajaria’s independence. But like his predecessor Edvard Shevardnadze, he promoted Georgian Orthodoxy among the Ajars and restricted the activities of Muslims.

            Guerra cites the comments at the end of last year of Metropolitan Dmitry of Batumi, the capital of Ajaria.  “In 1991,” the hierarch said, “5,000 people among whom were Muslims and atheists came over to Orthodoxy. In that same year, we opened a higher theological school in Khulo, the first religious school opened in the USSR.”

            According to the metropolitan, many of the Ajars who were forced to convert to Islam by the Ottomans in fact remained in secret Christians, wearing crosses under their clothese, coloring eggs before Eastern, and putting up icons in their homes.
            Today, the Vatican journalist says, many of the Orthodox priests in Ajaria come from Islamic families, and the rector of the Batumi Seminary is even “the grandson of a mullah who received his education in Istanbul.”

            Tbilisi and the Georgian Orthodox Church have promoted this development even when it has created conflicts with local Muslims Indeed, Georgian efforts against Islam almost led to an open conflict with Muslims there when officials took down a mosque’s minaret over claimed non-payment of taxes.

            That conflict appears to be easing, the “Vatican Insider” reported, but the Georgian church is involved in another, this time with the Armenians.  Georgian priests have been organizing pilgrimages to a monastery that the ethnic Armenians of Georgia claim as theirs and have asked Yerevan to intervene.

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