Prague, 22 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In a highly unusual move, Georgia's autocephalous Orthodox Church announced sanctions last week against one of its own clergy.
Gerasime (Sharashenidze), bishop of Zugdidi and Tsaishi, announced the decision at the close of a Holy Synod on 14 December.
"On 18 August 2003, deacon Basil Kobakhidze was issued a warning by the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church," Gerasime said. "Nevertheless, he continued with his anti-church statements and actions. The Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church has therefore decided to bar Deacon Basil Kobakhidze from performing religious services for grossly violating the laws of the church."
Kobakhidze is famous in Georgia for his criticism of church leadership and for advocating dialogue with minority Christian groups. Two of his fellow priests known for similarly ecumenical views -- Zaza Tevzadze and Michael Asatiani -- were issued warnings by the Holy Synod.
As in neighboring Russia, Catholics, and Protestants are generally viewed with suspicion in predominantly Orthodox Georgia.
Kobakhidze and his two companions have repeatedly blamed the Patriarchate for failing to condemn attacks against Christian minorities. They have also publicly condemned Jvari (The Cross), a hard-line religious movement responsible for violence against Jehovah's Witnesses.
Kobakhidze recently co-performed Georgia's first-ever Orthodox-Baptist ecumenical marriage. Last year, he openly criticized Patriarch Ilya II and his close entourage for forcing the government of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze to abandon a planned treaty with the Vatican.
Citing accusations of heresy leveled against him after the Holy Synod, Kobakhidze told RFE/RL that his expulsion from the church may be just a question of weeks.
He denied the charges against him, but said he cannot appeal against the conclave's conclusions.
"Of course, I will not challenge the ruling and seek to perform religious services," Kobakhidze said. "But, as an expert on church law, I've already said that I consider this decision as being illegal and absolutely groundless. It is just an act of retaliation against one of those [few] priests who dare openly say that the Georgian Orthodox Church is in a catastrophic state."
Of primary concern to Kobakhidze is the ascendancy he said Russia has been exerting over the Georgian Patriarchate.
Of primary concern to Kobakhidze is the ascendancy he said Russia has been exerting over the Georgian Patriarchate. This, he claimed, has helped make the church leadership a stronghold of conservatism and religious "fanaticism" that sees every Western influence as a "threat" to the Georgian state.
Kobakhidze and a handful of other reformist priests also blame the church leadership for being "fraught with corruption and nepotism."
"We do not criticize the Georgian [Orthodox] Church or Patriarchate as institutions," Kobakhidze said. "We simply criticize this clan of 20 to 30 people who concentrate in their hands all the power of the church and have turned archbishops and priests into slaves mainly preoccupied with keeping their salaries and social status."
In an open letter published in the "24 Saati" (24 Hours) daily, 23 seminary students last month voiced criticism similar to that of Kobakhidze. Four of them have already been expelled and the remainder is complaining of harassment from teachers and classmates.
The sentence against Kobakhidze has sparked concerns among rights activists.
In a statement posted on its website, the Tbilisi-based Liberty Institute said that the ruling "shows once again how the Patriarchate restrains freedom of speech and expression."
By contrast, conservative politicians have publicly endorsed the Holy Synod's decision.
Mamuka Katsitadze, a member of the New Rightists-Industrialists parliamentary opposition, last week accused Kobakhidze's supporters of undermining Georgia's "national unity."
"They are relentlessly combating all that is national and traditional with an aim to making the situation deteriorate further," Katsitadze said. "Yet, they do not understand that this may provoke an adequate reaction on the part of the church and the parishioners. Believe me, when this reaction starts the civil confrontation it will generate will overshadow all civil confrontations we've had in the past."
Public expressions of support for Kobakhidze have prompted the Patriarchate's representative in parliament, Giorgi Andriadze, to leave his post and found a new organization known as the National Lobby.
Addressing reporters last week, Andriadze said his aim in doing so was to defend Georgia's church and "national values."
"I am not creating anything new. I am not creating a political movement. I am just joining that part of society [that supports the church] to defend its religious rights as best as I can."
On 17 December, some 300 students gathered in Tbilisi's main cathedral to express their support for the Patriarchate.
Kobakhidze said that most of his fellow citizens are under the influence of the "religious nationalism" that has dominated society since the second half of the 1990s.
"This religious nationalism, or Orthodox patriotism exists also in Russia. But here, it is total. Some people sincerely believe in it," Kobakhidze said. "Others adhere to it only to make a career. Look at our government officials -- they have traded all their portraits of Lenin for bibles and icons. Besides, this religious hysteria is not the work of isolated priests. It is the work of the Patriarchate and the patriarch himself."
Kobakhidze also criticized President Mikheil Saakashvili for adopting an ambiguous approach toward church affairs.
One of Saakashvili's first decisions after his election was to send Basil Mkalavishvili, a maverick priest convinced of numerous attacks against Jehovah's Witnesses, to jail.
But Saakashvili has been careful not to antagonize the church leadership.
Earlier this month, he attended a lavish religious service that marked the inauguration of Georgia's largest religious building, the Holy Trinity cathedral in Tbilisi. Following the publication of the seminary students' letter, Saakashvili also urged the media to show restraint in covering church affairs.
Kobakhidze said that Saakashvili's efforts to use religion to bolster Georgia's national unity "only add strength" to those who want to silence critics against the church leadership.[For similar stories, visit RFE/RL's new "Religion And Tolerance" webpage, which highlights examples of religious tolerance in our broadcast region.]