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Georgia's Church Agreement

The Orthodox Church in Georgia is seeking to forge closer ties with the state
By Jaba Devdariani

The Georgian Orthodox Church is poised to play an increasingly important role in the nation's political arena.


Last month, church leaders and state officials signed a constitutional agreement, the Concordium, which was first drawn up in 1999.


Under the agreement, the church has been awarded a range of concessions including property rights over religious artifacts, exemption from military service and generous tax breaks.


And the Church's new found role in Georgia's political life was underlined by the Patriarch, Ilia II, in this year's Easter address. Focusing on foreign policy, the patriarch expressed concerns over "unfettered liberalism" and the unipolar world order whilst praising international peacekeeping initiatives.


The speech marked a new departure for a church which was founded in the 4th Century and today unites more than a third of the local population.


The role of the church in Georgian politics first came to the fore in the 1980s when the national independence movement trumpeted slogans such as "Language, Motherland and Faith".


While the movement itself foundered on the rocks of internal conflict and civil war, the church retained much of its political influence because of its ability to sway opinion amongst the majority of voters.


Even the new generation of pragmatic politicians led by Eduard Shevardnadze realised the huge symbolic value of religion in their public relations campaigns. And, shortly after taking office as Georgia's president, Shevardnadze - the erstwhile Communist leader - was baptised by Patriarch Ilia II.


According to a national survey taken in 1995, more than 36 per cent of the population observes the Orthodox faith whilst the majority of those who claim to have no religious beliefs recognise the historical and cultural legacy of the Georgian Orthodox Church.


Today the Orthodox clergy is an integral part of the Georgian political establishment. Church leaders appear at all official events and receptions. They also use their political clout to advance their own agendas.


It was prior to the parliamentary elections of 1999 and the presidential race of 2000 that the idea of a constitutional agreement between church and state was first mooted.


However, the proposed Concordium soon ran into fierce opposition both at home and abroad.


Civil rights groups argued that the special powers granted to the Orthodox Church would infringe the freedom of religious worship guaranteed by the Georgian constitution and international treaties.


As a result, agencies ranging from Human Rights Watch to the US State Department produced a series of reports focusing on religious intolerance in Georgia. And, in 2000, fearing international repercussions, the Georgian authorities decided to shelve the initiative.


However, this year, NGOs in Georgia declared themselves satisfied with the church's commitment to religious freedom and threw their weight behind the Concordium.


Meanwhile, the usually divided Georgian political establishment - alarmed by the rising popularity of radical nationalist groups - united in support of the agreement. This move served to steal the march on the ultra-nationalists since the moral authority of the Orthodox Church on national questions remains unchallenged.


Consequently, the church was granted its "special role" but the political equilibrium remained intact - a pragmatic argument which ensured the Concordium met with little opposition in Tbilisi.


At the same time, it was thought that the church's new-found status would act as a counterbalance to religious militancy.


Recently, a renegade Orthodox priest orchestrated a series of violent attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses and other minority groups which were carried out by members of his parish. By boosting the central authority of the Patriarch, church leaders hope to nip such schisms in the bud.


However, some civil rights campaigners continue to criticise the Concordium, arguing that religious freedom is an intrinsic feature of building a civil society. Special relations between one religious group and the state could help to perpetuate totalitarian practices.


The campaigners are calling for a new law on religion which will define the legal framework for other faiths, guarantee their constitutional freedoms and regulate their relationship with the authorities.


The main religious groups in Georgia - including the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Roman-Catholic Church, the Evangelic-Lutheran Church and the Baptist Church -- support these initiatives.


They claim that the major failing of the Concordium is that it offers the Orthodox Church recourse to state law whilst other churches are only protected by civil law.


While such agreements are not uncommon in European societies, Georgia has set a new precedent in the Orthodox world. It is clear that the Concordium is a political stopgap aimed at silencing controversy. It will either serve to clarify hitherto ambiguous religious issues or simply to sweep them under the carpet.


Certainly, the Church has a moral and supportive role in civil society - but it is unclear whether the Georgian Orthodox Church has the intellectual and logistical resources to help the state provide charitable and educational services. There is reason to suspect that church leaders are primarily interested in securing political influence.


It remains to be seen whether the Orthodox Church will decide to espouse the cause of religious tolerance or fan the flames of religious conflict. Only then can we make a final judgment on Georgia's move.


Jaba Devdariani is the founder of the United Nations Association of Georgia and a fellow at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, USA


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