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Georgia: Church and State in Tight Embrace

A new concordat between the Georgian state and the Orthodox Church is cementing the latter's special status in society.
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Early one morning this week, President Eduard Shevardnadze and Patriarch Ilya II met in the Svetitskhoveli cathedral in the old Georgian capital of Mtskheta to sign a formal agreement binding church and state more closely together.


The accord, signed on October 14, is the second most important constitutional document in Georgia after the constitution itself and confirms the already privileged place of the Georgian Orthodox Church in the country.


The two sides chose the day of the festival of the Protecting Veil of the Virgin Mary for the ceremony. But by doing so they managed to offend large number of the faithful in Mtskheta. Ordinary churchgoers had to cross police cordons to make their way to the festival service in the cathedral and many were angry at the unexpected appearance of large numbers of government officials.


The large crowds gathered outside the cathedral were told that they had to wait for the signing ceremony to end and the president to leave, before they would be let in. "How dare Shevardnadze enter the church!" protested worshipper Anna Baramian, suggesting it was sinful to let the man she blamed for the country's ills into a holy place.


The concordat has been two years in the making and under discussion for even longer than that. From now on the state is obliged to respect the confidentiality of confessionals; church weddings are given the same status as state ceremonies; and priests are exempt from military service. The state will also help to create chaplaincies for both the armed forces and prisons; and the church will be able to receive funding in the form of voluntary donations, investments and grants.


"Yes, without doubt this is a timely and necessary agreement," conceded Tina Khidasheli, a member of the board of Georgia's Association of Young Lawyers, a non-governmental legal organisation. "The Georgian Orthodox Church should finally acquire a definite status."


An estimated 70 to 80 per cent of the Georgian population are members of the Orthodox Church and its priests and bishops are often present on state occasions. In 1997, a bill proposed that Orthodoxy be made the state religion and the rights of other faiths restricted. However, Georgia was applying to join the Council of Europe at the time and the bill was shelved.


The new concordat stops short of naming the Orthodox Church the official church of Georgia, but it does clearly give it a more privileged status than other religions.


The agreement recognises that the Orthodox authorities own their churches, monasteries, whether working or not, the land on which they are situated and religious treasures in museums or collections.


Some of the country's other faiths hope the agreement will benefit them. "There are five Catholic churches in Georgia and by the way we are fighting a court case with President Shevardnadze over one of them. Without any success, so far, it must be said," Giuseppe Pasotto, Roman Catholic bishop in Georgia, told IWPR. " We welcome the agreement between the state and the Orthodox Church. If it is important for Georgia to be orthodox nowadays, let it be so. We sincerely hope that the agreement will solve our dispute as well."


Giorgy Andriadze, spokesman for the Orthodox Patriarchate, said that the agreement was a logical development for Georgia, "If we bear in mind the many centuries of history of the Orthodox Church and the damage it suffered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this agreement is completely fair. Some points have been struck out of the document and that is unpleasant of course. For example, we know formally that some objects now belong to us, but we cannot them take them out of the museums or use them."


Andriadze stressed that before the agreement was signed, church leaders sought and received the approval of other traditional faiths in the country.


Asked why the church had not sought the backing of non-traditional Christian denominations, Andriadze seemed genuinely surprised. " We cannot meet any of them, since we don't know where they are, who they are or whether they exist at all," he said. "With the exception of the Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not want to make contact with us themselves."


The Jehovah's Witnesses say they have suffered 135 attacks and made 750 legal complaints in Georgia over the past three years. Their spokesman Gennady Gudadze said, "We are worried that our rights are being infringed and the state is doing nothing to stop this. Moreover, in several cases, state officials themselves are taking part in attacks on us." Other Protestant groups have also complained about discrimination.


NGO activist Tina Khidasheli said she believed the vexed relationship between the state and other religious groups in Georgia will only be resolved, if the government signs similar agreements with them. But that, she concedes, is unlikely.


Lyuda Rayeva is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.


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