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Spoof of Georgian Patriarch Sparks Row

Orthodox leader at the centre of argument over whether the church is too involved in public life.
By Ana Kandelaki
An internet parody of the country’s Orthodox patriarch, in which he was shown using an obscenity to describe the president, has provoked a storm of debate with some saying the video is attack on the church and others defending it on freedom-of-speech grounds.



The videos were posted on the Facebook page of Tea Tutberidze, who is a member of The Liberty Institute, a non-governmental organisation which is close to the government, so viewers have speculated that this could be an attack on the church by allies of President Mikhail Saakashvili.



The church and Patriarch Ilia the Second have massive authority in Georgia, where 80 per cent of the population is Orthodox, and comments criticising Tutberidze on Facebook have been vicious.



“I would kill you happily, and before that torture you. You are not a person, you reptile,” one comment said.



“How could you? You have attacked the most sacred person in Georgia, the patriarch. Fear God! You will be punished for what you did! Ninety nine per cent of Georgians dream of getting even with you. Everyone hates you. How are you going to live in Georgia?” said another.



Police investigators have already questioned a school pupil and a 21-year-old student in their efforts to discover who made the films, in which images of the patriarch were overdubbed with another voice.



Tutberidze, meanwhile, has asked the police to look into the threats against her. She said the videos were just an expression of free speech, and should not be illegal.



“The patriarch is not God and there is nothing bad about making a caricature of him,” she said.



Her status as a member of The Liberty Institute, which was one of the key opponents of former president Eduard Shevardnadze, and several of whose members are in the current administration, means it was inevitable that observers should wonder if the government was behind the attack on the church.



“It is possible that Tea did not get a direct order, but many members of the current government share her opinions not only of the patriarch, but of Georgian traditions in general,” said political commentator Ramaz Sakvarelidze, who said the videos were a clear attempt to “discredit the patriarch and accuse him of ties with Russia”.



He said many members of the administration see the Orthodox Church as an obstacle on their path to reshaping Georgia on a more western model.



“These people are annoyed by Georgian music, by Georgian traditions, because they think everything they haven’t seen in the West should be in second place,” he said.



The government, however, perhaps mindful of the patriarch’s status as the most trusted man in the country, has distanced itself from the videos. In a statement, the presidential administration said, “These unethical productions aim to divide society.”



“Their authors exploit the restraint shown by the church in political questions and try to win some cheap popularity,” the statement said.



The patriarch previously tended to stay out of politics, intervening only during Georgia’s regular political upheavals, when he has attempted to calm tensions. However, in recent months, he has made several comments critical of the government, mainly for its conduct during the 2008 war with Russia.



“Political statements by such an authoritative figure are always harmful to someone. Some words were a blow for the opposition, some speeches were a blow for the government. However, both sides avoid open criticism of the patriarch, because they would lose from it,” said Gia Nodia, a political expert.



Among Georgian internet users, the comments have provoked a storm of debate. Many posters argue that the video is an attack on the church, and a Facebook group “I love my patriarch” has even been formed.



Another group of mainly young internet users argue in favour of freedom of speech and against religious fanatics and extremists.



“We are becoming Iran,” wrote Natia, a Facebook user, in a recent post.



Her concern, and that of other Georgians like her, has been sparked by a series of events which appear to show religious radicals gaining an increasingly prominent role in society.



Last year, a Halloween a celebration in Tbilisi was broken up by activists from the Union of Orthodox Parents, UOP, who smashed equipment and beat the party-goers, saying that Orthodox people should not celebrate pagan festivals.



Halloween is not a traditional Georgian festival but like many western fashions, it has become popular among young people.



This year, the UOP issued pamphlets saying “this holiday is satanic” and appealed to Georgians to avoid it. Partly as a result, Halloween passed almost unnoticed.



But many Georgians are concerned by the UOP’s actions. In May, for example, its activists burst into a hall in the Ilia Chavchavadze State University where an international theology conference was being held, announcing that it was unacceptable for Orthodox people to participate if members of other branches of Christianity were present, and that the conference was heretical.



The UOP is technically independent of the patriarchate, but several priests are among its leaders and the patriarch has not publicly condemned its activities.



“The state, which should defend its citizens from these religious fanatics, prefers to keep quiet. There is a feeling of immunity from punishment, which will surely help an increase in radicalisation,” said Nino Bekishvili, a journalist.



Ana Kandelaki is a freelance journalist.