Brethren In Christ, Divided
/ 29 Sep.'03 / 20:47
Giorgi Sepashvili, Civil Georgia

Orthodoxy and Catholicism Clash in Georgia

 Thousands rallied in Tbilisi against treaty
 with the Vatican.
The Georgian government has yielded to pressure from the Georgian Orthodox Church and delayed signing of the inter-state treaty with the Vatican. Along with the international embarrassment, the power of the Orthodox Church’s isolationist lobby was revealed once again.

The Political Debacle

President Eduard Shevardnadze made a last minute decision not to sign an agreement with the Vatican after the mass protest rally took place on September 19, backed by the Georgian Orthodox Church. An agreement, along other inter-state issues, would have guaranteed religious freedom and legal rights for the Catholics in Georgia.

President Shevardnadze expressed regret on September 22 over the failure to sign the agreement, explaining the incident with “misunderstanding.”

"Development of the draft agreement started in Georgia long ago, immediately after the visit of Jean Paul II, the Pope of Rome, to Tbilisi [in 1999]. The agreement aimed to settle the cooperation between the two states. I am of Orthodox faith, but I honor all other religions," Shevardnadze said in his Monday radio broadcast on September 22.

He said the work over the draft would continue. The President also said that simultaneously, the Parliament would continue its work on the draft Law on Religion.

Observers note that the change of heart towards the agreement was caused by Georgian government’s unwillingness to risk losing support of the influential Orthodox Church on the eve of the parliamentary elections on November 2.

Archbishop Msgr. Jean-Louis Tauran, Secretary for the Holy See's Relations with Foreign States, who arrived to Tbilisi on 18 September, was forced to leave empty-handedly on September 21.

Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran sounded bitter at the aim of his trip being thwarted by “the last-minute rethinking by Georgian authorities.”

“The Holy See hopes that Georgia, member of important international conventions on human rights, knows how to remedy this regrettable situation,” Archbishop Tauran stated. The statement also reads that the Holy See felt “gravely wounded” by the attitude of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which had “diffused news that didn't correspond to reality, despite the fact that it was on several occasions given the chance to be informed of the progress of negotiations.”

The Georgian Orthodox Church used all of its political muscle to prevent the agreement from being signed. Firstly, it acted as a public whistleblower, issuing a statement before the arrival of the Vatican’s Foreign Minister, the Georgian government intends to sign a secret document with the Vatican aimed, the Orthodox Church claimed, at increasing the Vatican’s influence in Georgia.

In his rare press-conference on September 18 the leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos Patriarch Illia II held said “an interstate agreement between Orthodox Georgia and the Vatican cannot be regarded as expedient.”

“We do not know the details of this document. We signed a Concordat with the Georgian state [in 2002] and people knew the details of that document; it was publicly discussed. This agreement [with the Vatican] will cause serious problems for the Georgian government,” the Patriarch said.

  Banner: "Stop Infringing Orthodoxy"
  (c) Civil Georgia
The Orthodox Church’s statement was followed by the mass protest rally in front of the Parliament on September 19. Thousands of Orthodox Christians, mainly the students chanted anti-Vatican slogans. Some held handwritten banners: “Hands away from Georgia,” “We won’t let sign this treaty,” “Georgia without Vatican.”

Several high ranking Orthodox Church officials also attended the protest rally. Bishop Zenon of Dmanisi, an influential Orthodox official addressed the protest rally and thanked the protesters “for reviving the Georgian spirit by protesting against the agreement.”

“While there is freedom of faith and religion in Georgia, our Constitution grants priority to the Georgian Orthodox Church and this is enforced by the Concordat signed between the Georgian state and the Church,” Bishop Zenon added.

Radical Orthodoxy?

Last October, President Shevardnadze and the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Ilya II, signed a Concordat which gives the Orthodox Church important privileges over other religious groups.

The Orthodox Church fears that the agreement with the Vatican would have threatened its exclusive rights in Georgia.

During the visit of Pope Jean Paul II to Georgia in 1999, many Orthodox priests called on their parish not to attend the papal Mass, saying it would be a sin.

But not all the Orthodox Christians and priests are skeptical about ties with the Vatican. Father Basili Kobakhidze has been slammed by the Holy Synod, the main governing body of the Georgian Orthodox Church, for his critical views towards the officials of the Church.

Father Basili Kobakhidze says “the current leadership of the Church is absorbed by the fanaticism, the dark ideology of the middle ages, which isolates the Orthodox Church and increases gap with the rest of the world.”

Father Basili lectures at the Georgian State University’s department of journalism. He analyses up to 40 newspapers and magazines published by the Georgian Orthodox Church. He says that the ideas promoted by these papers are anti-western and hinder creation of the civil society in the country.

“Sometimes I am really afraid when I read these newspapers. I am afraid that Georgia is threatened by the Orthodox fundamentalism,” he adds.

The recent decisions and activity of many high-rank officials in the Georgian Orthodox Church discredit, isolate and weaken the [Orthodox] Church. Failed agreement with the Vatican was a vivid example of this trend,” Father Basili Kobakhidze told Civil Georgia.

The incident with the agreement revealed hidden tension between the Catholics and Orthodox Christians in Georgia, which has increased significantly in the recent years.

The agreement with the Vatican would have obligated Georgia to guarantee freedom to perform Catholic rites, allow the opening of the Catholic schools and permit all Catholics to study the history of their religion.

The Vatican’s Foreign Minister said the ones who would suffer the most were Georgia's Catholics, “who remain without any legal guarantees.”

Plight of the Catholic Church

There are about 50,000 Catholics living in Georgia, mainly in southern region of Samtskhe-Javakheti. Absence of the legal status hinders Catholic Christians’ activity in the country.

“For example, it is very difficult for us to construct a church, because the Catholic Church is not a legal entity in Georgia,” Father Gabriel Bragantini, the Provost of the Catholic Church in western Georgian city of Kutaisi, told Civil Georgia.

The Catholics in Kutaisi gather at Father Gabriel’s home in Kutaisi for rites. They are disputing the property issues with the local Orthodox Church for the last decade.

“In 1989 the Orthodox priests took over our church in Kutaisi. We appealed for many times to the Orthodox Church’s officials to return it, but in vain. Later we decided to appeal the court, however in July [2003] the Tbilisi District Court rejected our appeal,” Father Gabriel says.

Father Gabriel says that besides the church building in Kutaisi, the Catholics lost four other churches in Georgia, including the one in a town of Gori.

“Moreover, the Church [in Gori] was reconstructed on the Orthodox style. We urged the Orthodox Church to stop reconstruction. Even President Shevardnadze sent a letter to the Georgian Patriarchy urging to stop reconstruction, but no one heard it,” Father Gabriel says.

The Catholics bought a land plot in Akhaltsikhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti region, where almost half of the population is Catholic; however they were refused to construct a church there. “Than we urged the local authorities to let us reconstruct old and ruined church in the town. Authorities replied that they would issue the permit only in case by the consent of the Orthodox Church. But I do not understand why do we need the permission from the Orthodox Church?” Father Gabriel asks.

Father Gabriel says that several years ago the Catholic and Orthodox Churches were holding a dialogue over the joint charitable and educational activities. “But now, unfortunately even this dialogue appears to be unfeasible,” he added.

Tolerance Lost

In recent years Georgia has been numerously criticized by the international organizations for volition of religious minorities’ rights.

The Georgian government, which publicly condemns religious violence, seems to be reluctant to fight religious extremism in the real life.

In spite of the court’s decision to sentence defrocked Orthodox priest Basil Mkalavishvili, who is accused of masterminding and carrying our organized violence against Jehovah's Witnesses and Baptist-Evangelists and burning their religious literature, to a three-month pre-trial detention, the police still fails to arrest him.

Moreover, the authorities find it beneficial on the eve of the parliamentary elections to cooperate with politicians, who use supremacy of the Georgian Orthodox Church in their platforms. Maverick MP Guram Sharadze, supporter of Basil Mkalavishvili, is now in the presidential-backed election bloc For New Georgia and intends to run for MP in the single-mandate constituency in Tbilisi. Vano Zodelava, one of the leaders of the bloc and the Mayor of Tbilisi even admitted that he hopes Sharadze will succeed in the elections with the votes of Mkalavishvili’s supporters.

When some politicians stigmatize their opponents and human rights advocacy organizations by calling them supporters of the religious minority groups there is no protest in Georgia.

There is a little street in downtown of Tbilisi where Catholic, Orthodox, Armenian churches, as well as mosque and synagogue exist side by side. However, it seems that quiet symbol of the religious tolerance is not longer backed by the real life.

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