Georgia: Gay Book Provokes Storm
Georgian liberals are concerned by an upsurge in religious extremism after clashes over a recently-published book.
Activists from an extreme Orthodox Christian youth group raided Kavksiya television on May 7, and beat up the journalists and guests on a talk show which was due to discuss the book by Erekle Deisadze.
Deisadze, a previously unknown 19-year-old, wrote about homosexuality and incest in the book “Saidumlo Siroba”. The title in Georgian is not only obscene but also just one letter removed from “the last supper”, which enraged religious extremists.
The book had already sparked a demonstration by radical religious groups when it was launched on May 4 at the Ilia State University. A counter-demonstration by liberals the next day in favour of free speech turned into a mass fight.
After the incident in the television studio, police detained eight activists from the Popular Orthodox Movement, PRM, which links several radical religious groups.
“Homosexuals declare that we’re all the same. But how are we all the same? They are sick, they are not people. I am not a pacifist, I am a Georgian warrior and will give an adequate answer to anyone who slanders me,” said Irakli Pachoshvili, a PRM activist who himself studies at the Ilia State University.
“The aim of our organisation and our lives is to fight for Orthodoxy, and the forms of the fight will be shown over time,” Tengiz Omanidze, another member of the group, said.
The PRM was founded in March by Malkhaz Gulashvili, the former editor of the Georgian Times newspaper. It includes the Union of Orthodox Parents, which has for several years battled against what it considers to be non-Orthodox movements, as well as smaller groups.
Its office is in a large private house in central Tbilisi. From the street, passers-by can see its symbol through the window: a large two-headed eagle with a crown and cross. The group’s members say the eagle symbolises strength and the union of the religious and state authorities, while the crown symbolises monarchy and the cross Orthodoxy.
Opponents compare the movement to racist groups in Russia. PRM members prefer to compare themselves to Arkan’s Tigers – a Serb paramilitary force led by Zeljko Raznatovic, who died before he could be tried for crimes against humanity committed in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
According to the constitution, Georgia is a secular state. About four-fifths of the population are Orthodox, however, and the church and its patriarch Ilia II are widely admired and trusted. Lasha Topuria, a PRM activist, said the group operated in Orthodoxy’s interest but without the patriarch’s blessing.
“You do not need anyone’s blessing to defend Christ. We are not doing this in the name of the church, but because it is our moral duty. The patriarch does not have a monopoly of Orthodoxy and I have the right to defend my faith,” he said.
The seemingly increasing strength of the movement has concerned liberal activists such as Beka Mindiashvili, head of the Tolerance Centre at the State Ombudsman’s Office. He said society should stand up to PRM.
“This protest should not be only against this one incident. The protest should be against…fundamentalist and extremist ideologies in Georgia. In the name of Orthodoxy, people are being urged to destroy other people,” he said.
“Today these young people say they must destroy, for example, sexual minorities. Others say there should only be Orthodox people in Georgia. This is what Hitler said about the Jews, the homosexuals and the gypsies, and look what he went on to do.”
He said people had the right to make xenophobic statements, but not to act on those opinions.
“The people must raise their voice to stop intolerance spreading in Georgia. We must appeal to the state to make sure that, where the law and the constitution are broken, something is done, the guilty are arrested and their crime condemned. Society must protest,” he said.
The prosecutor’s office said the attack on the television studio was being investigated under two articles of the criminal code that threaten between two and seven years in prison on conviction.
President Mikhail Saakashvili has also spoken out against the groups, with his spokeswoman saying, “All are equal under the constitution. The president condemns extremism. Real democracy can be achieved only through respect for the law.”
But activists said the authorities were not doing enough to oppose the wave of violence. Nino Bekishvili, a journalist who has worked in defence of human rights for many years, said officials did not want to be blamed for being anti-religious.
“Most people in government and the opposition compete in front of the cameras to demonstrate their religious feelings,” she said.
“The events of the last few days show we are reverting to a time when the authorities could do nothing against religious extremists.”
Sopho Bukia is editor of Liberali magazine.