Church leader sparks Georgian baby boom
By Tom Esslemont
BBC News, Tbilisi
Two years after having one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Georgia is enjoying something of a baby boom, following an intervention from the country's most senior cleric.
At the end of 2007, in a move to reverse the Caucasian country's dwindling birth figures, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, came up with an incentive. He promised to personally baptise any baby born to parents of more than two children.
There was only one catch: the baby had to be born after the initiative was launched.
The results are, in the words of the Georgian Orthodox Church, "a miracle".
The country's birth rate increased by nearly 20% during 2008 - a rate four times faster than the previous year.
Many parents say they took the decision to have another child on the basis of the Patriarch's incentive.
Giorgi and Pati Bluashvili have just had their fourth child. He is a boy called Giviko. He has big blue eyes and a loud laugh. As I try to interview his mother he takes delight at interrupting by babbling away.
Pati says the decision to have another child was an easy one.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we had Giviko because of the Patriarch's incentive," she says.
"When he announced that he would baptise any child born to parents with at least two children already we could not resist the opportunity to have another baby. To have a child baptised by the Patriarch is so very special."
Many other parents agree. It is perhaps not surprising in a country where more than 80% of people follow the Orthodox faith.
On a Thursday afternoon, dozens of parents are queuing up outside a registry office in central Tbilisi to put their child's name down for the Patriarchal mass baptism. The ceremonies take place four times a year.
Scribbling down the name of her three-month-old boy, Nino - a young mother - says it is an honour to be contributing to the task of boosting birth rates.
"The Patriarch did a really good thing launching this initiative," she says.
"I am sure that most parents decided to have more babies because of him. If his Holiness baptises your child it means he becomes his or her godfather and that is such an honour."
The next baptism is scheduled for early April, when thousands of mums, dads and their children will cram into Tbilisi's biggest church, the Sameba Cathedral. The babies will be briefly dipped into a gigantic inflatable font after receiving a blessing from his Holiness, Ilia II.
The Patriarch plays a very influential role in Georgian society. Many see him as the most authoritative figure in their life.
But to Church insiders, the increased birth rates come as no surprise.
"Faith is getting stronger," says Irakli Kadagishvili, a spokesman for the Patriarch Foundation, a movement set up to promote the interests of the Church.
"The Patriarch is seen not only as a religious figure, but also as a national authority. When he saw the need to increase the birth rate he only had to provide an incentive. It was the only stimulus most parents needed if they were already thinking about having more children."
The Church is taking the credit for the sudden trend in having babies. But there are other factors to consider, including economic ones.
Who is now creating families? People who five years ago were out of work
head of Georgian civil registry
The head of Georgia's civil registry, Giorgi Vashadze, has been monitoring the recent figures.
He tells me that the jump from 48,000 in 2007 to 57,000 in 2008 can, in part, be explained by the Patriarch's incentive, but also by the rise in average household incomes.
"Who is now creating families? People who five years ago were out of work," he says.
"Previously, they had no income. They could not get married. Today they are working. They have salaries. They are maybe not as high as in [other] European countries but they are quite normal for Georgia. So I think this is a major factor."
In a country which early last year boasted of having economic growth rates of 7.9% there is little doubt that economic factors may have played a role in bringing on the baby boom.
But the role of the Church cannot be underestimated in Georgia.
Twenty years ago, just before Georgia gained independence from the Soviet Union, the Orthodox religion was all but suppressed in the country.
Now it is more than clear that the faith has never been stronger.