Georgian patriarch prompts population boom

Georgia has stemmed a long-term population decline thanks to an unpredecented offer by the head of its Orthodox Church to be godfather to thousands of children, the civil registry agency said Friday. The agency linked a sharp increase in births and marriages to improved living standards and the offer by the patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church to become godfather to every third child born to aGeorgia family.

In a statement, the agency said the number of births in 2008 had increased by 19 percent over 2007 and by 37 percent since 2005. The number of marriages grew by 20 percent last year and by 72 percent since 2005.

"The number of marriages and births has increased dramatically in Georgia... The demographic situation is significantly improved," the head of the agency, Giorgi Vasadze, said in the statement.

"The demographic growth is directly linked with the economic growth as well as the initiative made by the Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia that he will be a godfather for every third child in a family."

The head of Georgia's influential Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, announced the initiative in late 2007 and has since become godfather to more than 2,000 children, the head of the patriarch's charitable foundation, Irakli Kadagishvili, told AFP.

The number of births and marriages had been falling every year before 2005 as Georgia suffered through economic chaos and civil wars following its independence with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

But living standards have improved as the country posted record economic growth over the last three years following sweeping free-market reforms by President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Government estimates put Georgia's current population at 4.6 million. The country is due to conduct its next population census in 2010.