As sharply contested parliamentary voting approached in Georgia last week, the country’s Orthodox patriarch implemented his own peculiar pre-election ritual: He arranged for an airplane carrying icons and holy relics to circle over Georgian airspace while priests prayed over the country’s future, in an updated version of an ancient practice employed ahead of enemy invasions and other calamities.
It was a revealing gesture from Georgia’s church, which exerts a profound but mostly behind the scenes influence on political life. The elections brought an end to the eight-year dominance of President Mikheil Saakashvili and his team ”” as well as their sometimes aggressive push to introduce Western ways to this conservative society. That quest drove Mr. Saakashvili’s government into occasional conflicts with the church, which worsened as the country approached a highly competitive election.
“They hoped, I think, that in the critical moment the patriarch would back them, which apparently was wrong,” said Levan Abashidze, a religious scholar. Instead the church repeatedly stated its neutrality in the race, he said, sending a signal to voters that it was not endorsing the government.