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Georgia: Government, Church To Sign Controversial Concordat

  • Jean-Christophe Peuch

In Georgia, leaders of the Autocephalous (independent and self-governing) Orthodox Church are lobbying secular authorities for legislation that would grant it special status. The Church's Patriarchate is particularly anxious to sign a controversial document that would regulate relations between the state and the church. But Georgian liberal politicians, human rights activists and religious minority groups fear that the so-called "concordat" might pose a threat to religious freedom. RFE/RL correspondent Jean-Christophe Peuch reports form Tbilisi.

Tbilisi, 16 May 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Ever since Georgia acceded to independence in 1991, its Orthodox Church has been lobbying parliament and the government for legislation that would grant it special status.

Chief among the proposed laws is a controversial document that, from the Orthodox clergy's point of view, would regulate relations between the Patriarchate and the government, giving the church a greater say in the country's overall spiritual affairs.

The document has been under consideration in Georgia for at least five years. It is known as a "concordat" -- even though that term usually designates an accord reached between the Vatican and a government to settle the Roman Catholic Church's status in individual nations.

Several blueprints of the concordat have been drafted, with a final version having recently been transmitted to parliament.

The concordat is expected to be signed later this year despite strong opposition from liberals, who fear it could jeopardize democratic reforms begun 10 years ago. Amendments to the constitution will be necessary before the document can become law.

Some analysts say the concordat is backed by politicians who are seeking to exploit nationalist leanings and back the views of the Church as a means of winning votes.

Controversy over the concordat has been fuelled by recent violent attacks carried out by Orthodox hard-liners against religious minority groups such as Baptists or the Jehovah's Witnesses. Among Orthodox extremists is a group of some 100 led by Vasili Mkalavishvili, a defrocked priest also known as Father Vasili.

Although the Orthodox Patriarchate has never endorsed the use of violence, it has only half-heartedly condemned the perpetrators of these attacks.

The latest incident took place on 12 May, when a mob of extremists reportedly affiliated to Vasili's group burned down the home of the Jehovah's Witnesses in Tbilisi's Samgori district. Father Vasili has denied any responsibility for the incident.

Human rights groups and religious minorities blame the government for tacitly encouraging the attacks through its inaction. They say on many occasions the police have failed to prevent the attacks and that none of the perpetrators has ever been brought to justice.

Levan Berdzenishvili is the general director of Georgia's national library and also runs a non-governmental organization known as the Civic Development International Center. Berdzenishvili says that the Orthodox Church's strong hostility toward other faiths is due in no small part to its inability to adapt to the new environment that emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union and to compete -- both spiritually and financially -- with "non-traditional" religious groups.

He also notes that since 1991 there has been a gradual rapprochement between secular and ecclesiastical authorities.

"Former communist officials declared themselves Christians and started interfering zealously in the country's religious affairs. Nobody believes in their conversion, but it was a boost for the Orthodox Church, which saw new opportunities to move closer to the [secular] authorities. And now the Church is trying to use these same authorities to solve its problems."

Berdzenishvili was apparently referring to President Eduard Shevardnadze, a former Soviet Communist Party official who was baptized and christened "Giorgi" shortly after he took power in 1992. Shevardnadze is widely believed to have close ties with the Patriarchate.

The Orthodox Church hopes that the concordat will secure the return of properties that currently belong to the state that it says were taken away from the church under Soviet rule.

Religious minorities have also been unable to regain ownership rights to properties confiscated after the 1921 Bolshevik takeover. They complain that, in the absence of proper legislation, they are unable to acquire property.

But non-Orthodox religious groups and liberal intellectuals believe that, beyond the property issue, the concordat will offer the Patriarchate unprecedented privileges that they say could prove detrimental to other denominations.

Although the 1995 Georgian Constitution states that all religions are equal in rights, it nevertheless emphasizes the special role the Georgian Orthodox Church has played in the country's history.

The overwhelming majority of ethnic Georgians, who represent approximately 70 percent of the country's five-million-strong population, nominally associate themselves with the Georgian Orthodox Church.

Besides the Jehovah's Witnesses and Protestant denominations, Georgia's religious minorities include Muslims, Roman Catholics, followers of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Jews, Russian Orthodox, and a small number of dissident religious groups of Russian origin loosely connected with Orthodoxy.

All these faiths have been represented in Georgia for centuries, but the Patriarchate regards most of them as unwanted newcomers.

In an interview with our correspondent, historian Giorgi Mamulia said one of the basic ideas of the concordat is that Georgia's current Eastern-oriented Orthodoxy should be considered the country's "national religion." This, he argues, is "historical nonsense."

Mamulia notes that, for centuries after the 1054 Schism between Rome and Byzantium, the Georgian Orthodox Church always felt spiritually and dogmatically closer to Rome. Only in the 16th century did Georgia begin looking toward Russia as a potential ally against the Ottomans and the Safavid Persians.

Ten years after Russia conquered eastern Georgia in 1801, the Georgian Church lost its independence and came under the rule of the Russian Patriarchate. The autocephaly of the Georgian Orthodox Church was restored only in 1943 by Stalin.

Mamulia questions the notion that Georgia's clergy has always looked towards Byzantium and Moscow:

"Georgia has never been Orthodox in the Byzantine -- even less in the Russian -- understanding of the word. Up until the Schism between Rome and Byzantium, Orthodoxy had been understood in Georgia in the Western sense of the word. From 1054 through the 16th century, it is clear that Georgia was close to Western Christianity, especially to Rome. Only geopolitical factors forced us to move toward the Russian Orthodox Church. This was not the result of any political or church tradition. On the contrary, we stepped away from our traditions."

Mamulia thinks the concordat -- which he says is supported by nationalist parties and pro-Russian politicians alike -- is an attempt to create a "Russian Orthodox-type theocracy" that will eventually keep Georgia in Moscow's orbit.

Earlier this week (14 May), Shevardnadze said the document, which the government has pledged to submit to the Council of Europe, will not infringe on the rights of other religions.

But representatives of non-Orthodox religions see the concordat as a potential threat. Bishop Oleg Khubashuli, the leader of Georgia's Pentecostal Church, expressed his concerns to RFE/RL:

"We believe that [the concordat] will undermine the rights of religious minority groups. It is not acceptable that a state should favor one religion over the others. All religions should be equal in rights. We do not question the fact that Georgia has long felt itself an Orthodox country. Nevertheless we think that [the concordat] is unacceptable because, under its terms, Orthodoxy will be taught in schools that are attended by our children."

Two years ago, human rights groups reported that, under the pressure of the Patriarchate, the Education Ministry had prevented the use of school textbooks on the history of religions because they did not give absolute precedence to Orthodox Christianity.

National Library director Berdzenishvili is sympathetic to minority groups' concerns about the concordat, but he says that its threat should not be overestimated:

"I too think this is a threat. But only on paper. Because what the Orthodox Church really cares about is property, financial operations. I am sorry to say this, but this is the truth. It is a pity that the aspirations of the Orthodox Church have turned so materialistic, but [it] really doesn't need anything else."

But historian Mamulia argues that the proposed document could jeopardize Georgia's social stability:

"Religion should serve as an assimilating, as a [consolidating] factor. But the way it is presented [in the concordat] will lead to a deep-rooted schism based on national and religious motivations. Given that Georgia is a multiethnic state and that 30 percent of its population is made of non-ethnic Georgians, I don't think this is the best way to [consolidate] our nation."

Four years ago, the Georgian Patriarchate withdrew from the World Council of Churches, an organization set up in 1938 to promote dialogue among Christian churches.

Mamulia thinks that, instead of moving toward further isolation, the Georgian Orthodox Church should look for ways to improve ties with Western religious denominations. He says that this would help Georgia's leadership "modernize" the country and keep it away from Russia's influence.