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Georgian Church Letter Raises Storm

The Georgian Orthodox Church rejects criticism that it is abusing its special status in society.
By Sofo Bukia

Twenty-three Georgian seminary students have drawn the wrath of the church leadership in Tbilisi for an open leader that called for reforms in the Georgian Orthodox Church.


The row comes as a group of Georgian parents is seeking an enhanced role for the church in schools.


The seminary students complained that church figures had a poor level of spiritual education and limited world view and condemned corruption within the church.


After the letter was published in the Georgian daily newspaper 24 Hours, the signatories said they were angrily denounced by their teachers in the seminary and threatened with expulsion.


“He who criticises the church is speaking against sacred things and against God,” a spokesman for the Patriarchate told IWPR.


“This is a fight against the church because you cannot fight on its behalf with these kind of disgraceful allegations,” a church official, who did not want to be named, said. “We are going to study in detail the problems which the students raised but we are declining to comment publicly on them. Church matters are church matters.”


The public is broadly backing the church against the students. “We shouldn’t forget that in the times of change in which we live a stable institution like the church is absolutely essential,” said Rismag Gordeziani, a history professor at Tbilisi State University. “You can’t use the same laws against the church, which you use in ordinary life.”


“They want to hurt the Georgian Orthodox Church and to split it up,” said Mikhail Kurdiani, a literature scholar, blaming outsiders for organising the letter and saying, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”


Koba Davitashvili, a leading opposition member of parliament, went further, blaming organisations who “want to destroy the Georgian Orthodox Church”. “Behind this stands the non-governmental organisation the Liberty Institute and the security ministry of Georgia,” he said.


President Mikheil Saakashvili himself weighed into the debate on the side of the church, accusing the media of irresponsibility for their coverage of the letter.


“The state should not interfere into the business of the church,” Saakashvili said. “I want to ask journalists to be more careful in the way they cover religious issues.”


Saakashvili came to power pledging to crack down on religious extremism. The renegade priest Father Basil Mkalashvili, who had organised violent attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious minorities, was arrested and these attacks ceased.


However, while welcoming this, some experts are worried at what they see as a general rise in religious intolerance within society.


Naira Gelashvili, a writer who heads the non-governmental Caucasian House, said, “I first noticed that a trend of aggressive religious faith was growing in society early last year when politicians and media, who had completely ignored the beating up of Jehovah’s Witnesses by Orthodox believers, attacked a group of writers and leaders of non-governmental organisations who had signed an inoffensive letter to the Patriarch asking him to respond to the fundamentalist statements and actions of some figures in the church.”


This September, at the beginning of the new academic year, new Orthodox organisations appeared in schools, saying they wanted to oversee the educational programme and exclude from it subjects such as sex education.


Representatives of the Union of Orthodox Parents have been picketing the education ministry, demanding that the history of Orthodoxy be added to the curriculum.


“We respect representatives of other religions, but no one should forget that they live in Georgia, an Orthodox country,” Jondi Bagaturia, a member of the union told IWPR. “And many people want to make Orthodoxy a religion of the minority.”


The Georgian Orthodox Church has had a special status in the country since 2002 when the state and church signed a special concordat. The document said that the church was an “essential foundation for the revival of the country” and gave the church special commercial privileges.


While few dispute the special place of a church in Georgia which dates back 16 centuries, it remains a country in which 30 per cent of the population - notably its large Armenian and Azerbaijani minorities - belongs to other confessions and religions.


The students who signed the letter say the church is abusing its special place in society.


“The deplorable situation we have now is a result of a policy of silence which has lasted for many years,” Beka Mindiniashvili, one of the signatories of the letter.


“It’s no secret that a lot of money is changing hands for the performing of church rituals such as weddings, baptisms and funerals,” he said. “In big city churches the rates being asked are absolutely huge. They even take money for hearing confession.”


Paata Zakareishvili a well-known political analyst and theologian, condemned what he called the church’s “mafia mentality” and said it badly needed reform.


“Society has to raise its voice and discuss the problems of the church as actively as possible,” he said. “And we shouldn’t be afraid of a schism in the church. That will happen only if the church cannot free itself of its spiritual and moral darkness.”


The students have received the backing of Georgia’s state ombudsman Sozar Subari, himself a former seminary student, who said, “The reaction to the students’ letter worries me a great deal. It’s no surprise that the seminary students are discussing the state of the Orthodox Church. If they don’t, who else should do it? And every citizen has the constitutional right to express his opinion, regardless of where he is a student.”


The students say that they received a final warning from their rector Teodor Chuadze to stop their complaints.


Sofo Bukia is a correspondent with 24 Hours newspaper in Tbilisi.


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