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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rogue Priest at Large Gets His Comeuppance

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TBILISI, Georgia -- Georgians are a religious bunch. As well as going to church every Sunday, they often stop off to light candles to their favorite saints on their way home from work.

On weekends, they take their kids on pilgrimages to crumbling monasteries perched on distant hilltops, or they visit the ancient capital and religious heart of Georgia, Mtskheta.

Taking part in church services isn't restricted to the elderly, as it is in so many other parts of Europe. Last time I was in a Georgian church, most of the congregation were school-age, and the man singing the litany was wearing a Metallica T-shirt and a black leather jacket under his robes. He couldn't have been more than 17.

Traveling by taxi in Tbilisi is precarious at the best of times (Georgian drivers set little store by road markings, traffic lights or pedestrians). But if you've ever hurtled through the city center with a religious cabbie at the wheel, you -- like me -- will have feared for your life.

Every time they pass a church (and that's about every 100 meters in Tbilisi) they turn to face it, cross themselves and bow so deeply their noses practically scrape the clutch. And as if that weren't bad enough, they insist on doing this three times, which means they're crossing and genuflecting for considerably longer than they're looking at the road.

Mostly, Georgians' religion fits easily and inconspicuously into the rest of life. But occasionally it gets a little out of hand, as with the congregation of Vasil Mkalavishvili.

The rogue priest has a broad fan base, even though he was excommunicated from the Georgian Orthodox Church eight years ago. Until then, the country's religious leaders had turned a blind eye to his eccentric behavior. But when he started urging his followers to vandalize the offices of Jehovah's Witnesses and burn pamphlets put out by the Baptists, they said enough was enough.

Last year he was charged with damaging property and inciting riots. But he managed to avoid arrest, holing up instead in the church he'd built for himself where he was protected by dozens of zealous supporters.

Earlier this month, however, hundreds of heavily armed police stormed the compound, using army trucks to break down a makeshift barricade. There were violent clashes and dozens of injuries before Mkalavishvili was eventually arrested and taken to a detention center.

His flock -- and there are lots of them -- immediately went on hunger strike, saying they wouldn't eat until he was released.

I'm not saying all Georgians are religious fanatics. Just that next time you offer a Tbilisi taxi driver a sandwich and he turns it down, be careful. Especially if you're a Jehovah's Witness.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.