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Georgian Draft Dodgers Find Loophole In God To Avoid Army

Georgian recruits line up for inspection at a military training center outside Tbilisi.
Georgian recruits line up for inspection at a military training center outside Tbilisi.

When Georgia's armed forces found Mirian Bezhitadze, he found God.

It's not that Bezhitadze is religious. Like thousands of other potential conscripts his age, the 21-year-old is invoking religion to avoid mandatory military service.

Bezhitadze used a loophole in the conscription law by registering as a priest at the Church of Biblical Freedom, a self-described "Christian-Evangelical-Protestant" organization founded in 2017.

To be ordained, one has to show up to a meeting with an identification card and 50 laris ($18.50).

So far, the church says that about 20,000 young people have received documents classifying them as priests, thus enabling them to postpone military service in this smallish Russian neighbor on the eastern bank of the Black Sea.

"I am against the violence that Georgian youths are subjected to by the state," Bezhitadze tells RFE/RL. "It is a form of violence when you force a person to lose a year of his life in the service of some abstract ideas. It is cloaked in patriotic motives, but really it is just a form of slave labor because these people are used simply as unpaid workers."

Soviet Relic

Conscription in Georgia, where all men aged 18 to 27 are subject to a compulsory 12-month stint in the military, has long been seen as a relic of Soviet times.

Since regaining independence in the early 1990s, the country has swung back and forth on conscription as it moves to create a fully professional army.

Georgia's military was thrown into a constant state of high alert after the Russia-backed separatist region of Abkhazia declared independence in the early 1990s amid a conflict between separatists and Georgian government forces.

After the five-day Georgia-Russia war in August 2008, Moscow recognized the independence of Abkhazia and another breakaway Georgian region, South Ossetia.

Georgia and the overwhelming majority of the international community consider both regions Russian-occupied territories.

Georgia has moved in fits and starts to create a truly professional army.
Georgia has moved in fits and starts to create a truly professional army.

Georgia's military comprises about 26,000 men and women, according to Jane's Information Group, about 1/40th* the size of Russia's.

But with pay of about 75 laris a month, Bezhitadze and others argue, the 6,000 or so conscripts drafted each year are as much a source of cheap labor for the state as they are a military force.

'Christian Duty'

Indeed, the Church of Biblical Freedom itself was founded on political expediency and not religious grounds.

The libertarian political party Girchi established the church in 2017 with the aim of helping young Georgians avoid military service.

It uses the law on military service, which states that priests and those studying in religious schools have the right to demand an exemption from mandatory service. The bishop of the church, Acho Khachidze, says that his faith compels him to bring more freedom to the people.

"I see it as our Christian duty to fight a system that is designed to oppress a person and take him where he doesn't want to be taken," he says. "We think that mandatory military service should be abolished and the country should switch to the contract system, where soldiers are people who want to be soldiers and they are treated as professionals."

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili (left) and Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II take part in a prayer during a commemoration ceremony in Tbilisi.
Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili (left) and Georgian Orthodox Patriarch Ilia II take part in a prayer during a commemoration ceremony in Tbilisi.

Looming large over almost every debate in Georgia is the Orthodox Church and conscription is no different. Most of the South Caucasus nation's 5 million people consider themselves Orthodox Christians, and the 85-year-old Patriarch Ilia II commands widespread respect.

Unhappy with Girchi's move, ruling party lawmakers in March proposed an amendment to the law that would limit exemptions from military service to Orthodox Christian priests.

The initiator of that effort, Irakli Sesiashvili, said the devil was in the details: According to him, there are five Muslims, 165 Jehovah's Witnesses, 50 Orthodox Christians, and 6,908 followers of the Church of Biblical Freedom using the law to dodge service.

Orthodox Backlash

In a rare rebuke of the Orthodox Church's dominance, the initiative was immediately challenged by several religious organizations. "We cannot have one religious organization being superior to the other," said Tariel Nakaidze, head of the Union of Georgian Muslims.

"Our Muslim community has never shied away from military service, but the point lies in the approach the parliament takes toward its citizens. We, as citizens, have to protect democracy, secularism, and equality in this country."

The backlash was strong enough that its author has put the proposal on hold, at least for the time being.

But Sesiashvili, the head of the Defense Committee, said the initiative wasn't dead and that he will continue consultations with political parties to see what can be done.

Meanwhile, the Georgian Orthodox Church is taking steps to combat the rise of the Church of Biblical Freedom.

It has created a new religious organization, the Community of Orthodox Christians in Catacombs, "to save Georgia's youth from the Girchi cult," says Giorgi Andriadze, who is well connected to the official Orthodox Church.

"Orthodox youths have no other way and are forced into this charlatan, nonexistent cult that Girchi has created," he says.

"Now we have a chance to return these people to the true Orthodox Church. These youth say that they were forced to become the members of Girchi church to avoid service and they would rather become members of an Orthodox organization," he adds.

* This story has been changed to correct the relative size of the Georgian military to that of Russia.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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