By Dustin Gilbreath, Deputy Research Director at CRRC Georgia.
One of the most controversial points in the COVID-19 crisis to date has been the Georgian Orthodox Church’s response. Of particular contention were the Church’s refusal to sanitize the communion spoon or to use a replacement and the decision to leave churches open for the Easter liturgy. In an apparent attempt to discourage church attendance, the government banned car use unexpectedly on April 17th in the days before Easter, with the ban continuing until April 27th.
While there was much controversy over the Church during the crisis, how many people actually attended church during Easter, and what did the public think of the Church’s response?
The results of the newly released COVID-19 Monitor survey, which CRRC Georgia carried out with the support of the Embassy of the Netherlands in Tbilisi, suggest that church attendance was less than a tenth of its past. Further, the public tended toward disapproving of the communal spoon policy. At the same time, data on people’s views of how the church handled the crisis are ambiguous.
The study asked respondents whether they attended Easter Liturgy this year as well as last.
Only 4% of Orthodox Christians reported attending church on Easter this year. This compares to 44% who reported that they went to church on Easter last year. Comparing the two (4% this year /44% last year) suggests attendance at Easter liturgy was 9% the year prior. This is likely a partial explanation for why Georgia did not experience a spike in COVID-19 cases following Easter.
Further analysis of the data suggests that younger people were a bit more likely to go to church (7% of 18-34 year olds and 5% of 35-54 year olds) than older people (1% people over 55).
When it comes to approval of the use of a communal spoon, 33% of Orthodox Christians approved of the communal spoon policy, 43% disapproved, and 21% were uncertain. Older people (55+) are more disapproving of the policy (55+: 51%) than younger people (18-34 and 35-54: 39%).
While relatively few people attended church this year and the public tended toward disapproving of the communal spoon policy, has this impacted trust in the church or the public’s perceptions of how well the church is performing? On these points, the data does not provide a clear answer.
On the 2019 Caucasus Barometer survey, 71% of Georgian Orthodox Christians reported trusting the religious institution they belong to. Similarly, 69% of Georgia’s Orthodox population reported the same on the COVID-19 Monitor survey. However, only 28% reported fully trusting the church in the COVID-19 Monitor survey compared with 35% in the Caucasus Barometer survey. This suggests that the degree of trust in the church has declined.
The COVID-19 Monitor Survey asked about the Church’s performance using the same question asked in the November/December 2019 NDI survey. The results suggest that since December, there has been an increase in positive assessments of the Church’s performance from 50% to 66%. However, this is in a context where performance assessments increased for all institutions that were asked about on both surveys.
The public tended towards not supporting the Church’s communal spoon policy, and most people who went to Church for Easter in the past did not this year. The Church’s approval ratings remain high, and have even increased since the start of the crisis. Yet, this follows a broader pattern of increased institutional performance assessments in the country more broadly, and the degree of trust that Orthodox Christians have in the church appears to have declined.