Georgia's Religious Battles

Dispute over Catholics’ use of Orthodox church highlights problems faced by Georgian minority faiths.

Georgia's Religious Battles

Dispute over Catholics’ use of Orthodox church highlights problems faced by Georgian minority faiths.

A small church on the Georgian-Turkish border, holding barely 20 worshippers, has become a new flashpoint in the battle between the country’s dominant Orthodox faith and religious minorities.

Georgia’s small Catholic community says it has celebrated every year outside the little Buzmareti chapel, which dates from the 5th or 6th century and was renovated two years ago, but is now being barred from doing so by a local Orthodox monk.

Father Grigol Khurtsidze, the dean of an Orthodox monastery, said he disrupted Catholic mass because the chapel belonged to his church, meaning the Catholics had no right to worship there.

“This angered the worshiping Catholics, since for many years no one has stopped us worshipping there on Ascension Day,” said Zurab Kakachishvili, the Catholic priest, who accused the Georgian Patriarchate of illegally blocking his flock.

“The church is on neutral territory. When Georgia’s borders were guarded by Russian border guards, once a year, at Ascension time, they allowed the Catholic congregation to hold a service there.”

The Orthodox ownership of the chapel is not disputed, but human rights activists say the Orthodox intolerance of the Catholics’ traditional mass at the site is a sign of the increased role the patriarch plays in the country’s political life. Eighty per cent of Georgians are Orthodox, and Patriarch Ilia II is one of the most trusted figures in opinion polls.

“The rights of religious minorities in Georgia are seriously violated and the state just allows this to happen,” said Nino Gvedashvili, a representative of the Georgian Centre for the Defence of Human Rights.

“The constitution of Georgia declares equal rights for all. However, there is a constitutional agreement between the state and the Orthodox Church, which receives significant funding from the state, as is not the case for religious minorities. Representatives of the Orthodox hierarchy are excused from service in the army, but other faiths do not have this right.”

This discrimination, she said, extended even into the schools system, where Orthodoxy is taught not the principles of other faiths.

“Children from a family, professing another religion, often become targets for pressure and derision from other pupils, and even from teachers sometimes,” she said.

There are 50,000 Catholics in Georgia’s population of almost five million, most of them living in the Akhaltsikhe region, which is where the Buzmaret chapel is located. Orthodox believers say their claim to many of the chapels is weak, since their community only arrived in Georgia after the buildings had been constructed.

“The Buzmaret chapel is an Orthodox building and even the Catholics know this. The first Catholic missionaries only arrived in Georgia in 1240, while this chapel was built in the 5th or 6th century,” said Tina Ivelashvili, a historian.

This history is the background to the Orthodox rejection of the Catholics’ claims.

“After the Russian border guards were replaced by Georgians, the territory was given to the Georgian patriarchate. Only after this did the Buzmaret chapel, which is named in honour of the Georgian King Buzmar, start to operate,” said Grigol Khurtsidze, the Orthodox dean.

“Just as Orthodox priests cannot hold services in operational Catholic churches, Catholics should not do so in Orthodox churches or on their territory.”

This is now the sixth Georgian church that Catholics say they have lost the right to worship in since Soviet restrictions on religion began to be relaxed. Several of the churches have clearly been used by both faiths for some time, and the Orthodox hard line is a new development in Georgian history.

The first church was given to the Patriarchate in 1987, then three more – in Kutaisi, Batumi and Gori – were handed over in 1989, and one more in 1991.

“The architecture of the Batumi church clearly shows its Catholic origins. You can say the same of the Kutaisi church. There are Catholic graves in these churches as well,” said Beka Mindiashvili, head of the tolerance centre at the Georgian ombudsman’s office.

But experts say the authorities do not want to harm their close relations with the Orthodox Church by stepping in to defend religious minorities, especially considering the ongoing political crisis in the country. Any actions seen as aimed against the patriarchate could severely damage the government in the eyes of the public.

“Now there are political tensions and no one cares about us. Even if it was not so, they would still not pay us any attention. We want to appeal to the president, but would our appeal even get to him,” asked Tamar Chitashvili, a Catholic resident from the village of Vale, who was present at the chapel on Ascension Day.

Her pessimism was shared by Mindiashvili of the ombudsman’s office, who said the influence of the patriarch was too large.

“Today there is not the political will to solve this problem fairly, since the authorities will not act against the patriarchate,” he said.

Fati Mamiashvili is a reporter with Rustavi-2 television in Tbilisi.
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