Two years ago, Georgia had one of the lowest birth rates of any country on the planet. This has now changed, as a result of an initiative of the patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Georgia, Patriarch Ilia II.
Although the current row over the comments of the Catholic Church's Pope regarding condoms that he claims increase the aids problem instead of decreasing it, was heard the world over, it is often said in moderate religious circles that comments by church leaders are not important since no one obeys them anyway.
It is a defense often used to counter atheist comments about the dangers of religion, and the argument does have a certain appeal, it sounds reasonable, and -in this particular case- seeing the widespread use of condoms by Catholics, it sounds true as well.
It is also a misleading defense, however, because there is no straightforward way to conclusively demonstrate its validity. Or is there?
The BBC reports that Georgia had one of the lowest birthrates in the world, two years ago. In late 2007, in an effort to reverse the trend, the Patriarch Ilia II announced that from the third child onwards, any child born to parents would be baptized personally by him. The one condition was that the child had to be born after the start of the initiative.
What are the results? The Georgian Orthodox Church is quoted as saying that it's "a miracle". Georgia's birthrate was raised by nearly 20% during 2008, four times faster than the year before. Many parents say that they had another child, because being baptized by the Patriarch is so very special.
Church insiders are not surprised. They say that faith is getting stronger, and that the Patriarch's initiative was the only stimulus most parents needed when they were already thinking about having more children, and they take the credit for the baby boom. Not everyone is convinced, however.
Giorgi Vashadze, the head of Georgia's civil registry says that the increase from 48,000 in 2007 to 57,000 in 2008 can be explained by the Patriarch's initiative, but only in part. Another important part is the improving economic situation. Many people who were unemployed five years ago, now have jobs which enable them to get married and to have more children.
Tom Esslemont of the BBC says:
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.