Zaza Piralishvili, D.Sc. (Philos.), professor at Ivane Javakhishvili Tbilisi State University (Tbilisi, Georgia)
According to the 2003 population census, Orthodox Christians in Georgia comprise 83 percent of the total population. I doubt, however, that the census figures accounted for the high level of labor migration, primarily Azeris and Armenians, therefore I compared these figures with expert assessments. My picture is not completely reliable either, but it does give an idea of the actual situation. My efforts revealed that 80.0 percent of the Georgian population considers themselves Orthodox Christians; 11.0 percent describe themselves as Muslims; 5 percent follow the Armenian Apostolic Church; 0.5 percent are Judaists; 2.5 percent belong to other confessions; and 1.0 percent does not profess any religion.
Religious life in Georgia is obviously dominated by an overwhelming number of Orthodox Christians. We should bear in mind that most of them (between 50 and 70 percent according to different sources) consider this religion their historical-cultural, rather than religious identity: they call themselves Orthodox Christians because of the local tradition. This is still an important factor. Recently, the number of people who describe themselves as Orthodox Christians for purely religious reasons has been growing.
In Soviet times, relations between confessions were an important factor which helped religions to survive. The process was a natural one: in 1962, the Georgian Orthodox Church joined the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches; later, in 1979-1981, the Georgian Patriarchate organized theological discussions between the Georgian Baptists and the Orthodox Christians. In 1983, the Patriarch administered communion to two Catholic priests in the Zion Cathedral—German Celestine Patok and Austrian Ernst Zutner; and in 1989, to a group of young Georgian Catholics. When visiting one of the Catholic-populated regions, the Patriarch pointed out that a schism divided Rome and Constantinople, while the Georgian Church had never quarreled with Rome.
Early in the 1990s, a “market of religions” appeared, which was full of organizations adjusting to the newly acquired freedom of worship and using the appropriate missionary technologies. The Orthodox Church at no time considered faith and salvation to be commodities to be put on the market. There is certain logic behind this and religious reasons to be reckoned with, yet, according to Mark Juergensmeyer, this could trigger religious nationalism and religious conflicts.1 Indeed, at some point, certain clerics turned to latent or open religious violence.
While in the early half of the 1990s, religious nationalism was part of cultural nationalism, half a century later, religious nationalism developed into an independent ideology. This happened, first, because of the adaptation crisis when the nation, which was returning to freedom after 70 years of Soviet totalitarianism, suffered a considerable cultural shock. Social hardships are the second reason for the same thing. A large part of the nation looked at Christian Orthodoxy as a symbol of deliverance. Recent sociological polls consistently demonstrate that the Orthodox Church is the only institution which still enjoys the confidence of 70 to 80 percent of the nation, even though not infrequently confidence can be given as a synonym of hope.
By the mid-1990s, it was clear that the conservative right wing of the Georgian Orthodox Church and the religious groups engaged in missionary activities were at daggers drawn. The religious newcomers proved to be well adjusted to the local conditions and obviously inclined, in extreme cases, to open expansion and “new evangelization.” Violence against these groups has already attracted the attention of the human rights organizations. There is an increasing number of publications in the religious and secular media which describe in apocalyptical terms democratization and liberal values as an anti-Orthodox plot. Certain Russian Orthodox ideologists contributed to the theories of alternative historical development. It should be said that starting in the mid-1990s, the Russian imperial avengers began using the ideology of Orthodox globalism as one of their tools.2 Some Georgian clerics were accused (and are still accused) of sympathizing with this project.
On 20 May, 1997, under pressure from religious fundamentalists, the Georgian Orthodox Church left the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches. In November 1999, the Patriarchate issued a ban on Orthodox Christians attending the Liturgy during the papal visit to Georgia.
In the second half of the 1990s, certain forces enjoying fairly strong public support demanded that Christian Orthodoxy be made the state religion. According to the 1997 public opinion poll conducted jointly by the Arnold-Bergstrasser Institute of Germany and the Caucasian Institute of Peace, Democracy, and Development, 65 percent of the respondents (70 percent of the student respondents) supported the statement that “faith and religious values should dominate all spheres of public and state life.”
In 2003, the Orthodox Church and the state signed a Constitutional Agreement which registered the Church’s special role in the Georgian state. The authorities turned a deaf ear to the religious minorities wanting similar agreements.
In 1999, a Working Group of the Christian Churches was set up to respond to the mounting violence of the Orthodox radicals. It was transformed into a council of inter-religious cooperation in July 2003 when Muslims and Judaists joined the Working Group. The Christian minorities started a tradition of ecumenical services, but a large part of the Orthodox clergy and their parishioners rejected the practice and the Council.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were the main targets of the violence, did not join the movement, but kept to themselves. They still avoid any contacts with other religious groups and NGOs. Arrests of several Orthodox radicals after the Rose Revolution whose extremism was largely caused by the sect’s missionary zeal lowered the level of violence and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ missionary pressure.
In 2005, liberal-minded Orthodox clerics and laymen closed ranks around a new publication—the Zgvari (The Limit) journal. By that time tension had subsided. The leader of the Orthodox radicals, former priest Basil Mkalavishvili, was arrested after the Rose Revolution; deprived of its leader the disorganized movement lost its intensity. The absolute majority of the local population looks at the non-Orthodox Christians as people who left the common historical and cultural field and treats them accordingly.
This was the background of religious life in 2005.
In April, the Christian Orthodox churches were shaken by a scandal involving Patriarch of Jerusalem Irineos I, who was accused of selling church land to Jewish businessmen. On 6 May, the Synod removed him from his post by 12 Episcopal votes out of a total of 18. The Patriarch refused to obey. Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew, who is also the Ecumenical Patriarch, convened a World Orthodox Congress in Constantinople’s St. George Cathedral on 23 May. The Georgian Orthodox Church was represented by a delegation made up of Metropolitan of Tskhum-Abkhazia Daniil (Datuashvili), Bishop of Zugdidi and Tsaish Gherasim (Sharashenidze), and cleric of the Zion Cathedral in Tbilisi, Deputy Rector of the Tbilisi Spiritual Academy Archpriest Georgy Zviadadze. The majority voted for his resignation; the delegates of the Polish and East Syrian churches abstained, while the Georgian delegation voted against. Metropolitan Daniil explained this by saying that Irineos was a canonical patriarch, therefore the group that condemned him should, instead, obey him. This was a strategy of universal reconciliation which those who represented Christian Orthodoxy should take into account. The Georgian delegation pointed out that the problem should be further studied with the help of experts in church law. Haste could trigger non-canonical opposition to the head of the church.3
Still, the official decisions of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Orthodox Church of 27 June paid little attention to this fact, which is eloquent enough in itself. The document said in particular: “The Holy Synod confirms that the position of the delegation of the Georgian Church at the Constantinople meeting was correct, yet deems it necessary to point out that the decision belongs to the Jerusalem Church.”4
The response was ambiguous: the critics of the Church agreed with those who believed that the position of the Georgian Church was determined by the accusations of certain clerics accused of corruption and illegal economic activities at home. It was also pointed out that Orthodoxy, which is conservative in nature, demonstrates two approaches to globalization. One of them, a relatively liberal one, is personified by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, looks for ways to adapt itself to the new historical conditions, and recognizes the supremacy of human values. The conservative approach is associated with the Russian Orthodox Church, which interprets all attempts to integrate with contemporary trends as concessions to man’s sinful nature. It uses more archaic vocabulary and the terms “alternative history” and “alternative eschatology.”
I have already written that there is a lot of talk about the clerics of the Georgian Church who supported these ideas; in fact, the position of the Georgian delegation was an expression of the latent confrontation in the Orthodox world.
The relations between the Russian and Georgian Orthodox churches cannot be described as unambiguous. The former was tempted to encourage religious separatism in the regions trying to detach themselves from Georgia: Abkhazia and Samachablo (the Tskhinvali Region). The Georgian Church was forced to protest against this.
After the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church began a movement aimed at gaining its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. It was started by the Kiev Patriarchate and its head, Patriarch of Kiev and Ukraine Filaret Denisenko. On 22 December, he congratulated Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II on the anniversary of his enthronement and asked for his support in the Ukrainian Church’s struggle for its independence. He pointed out that the Russian Church was working toward church separatism in Abkhazia and Samachablo, two separatist Georgian regions. The official response was never known, but it is unlikely that the Georgian Church would oppose the interests of the Russian Church in Ukraine in any resolute way. Other Orthodox churches have likewise tried to avoid such confrontation.
The liberal wing of the Georgian Orthodox believers enthusiastically supported the idea of autocephality in Ukraine. In mid-December, a delegation of the Georgian NGO Center for Religious Studies, the members of which included Protodeacon Basil Kobakhidze and the Center’s head, Lado Gogiashvili, attended the Ukrainian Church and Civil Forum. Holy Patriarch of All Ukraine Filaret awarded the Georgians with a Large Church Order of Grand Prince Equal-to-the-Apostles St. Vladimir.
In 2005, the contradictions over the ownership of certain churches claimed by the Armenian Apostolic Church became aggravated. The disagreement started much earlier and developed into a permanent bone of contention in the relations between the two countries. Recently, however, the issue moved to the fore.
In March, the Georgian Eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church issued a press release saying that early in April an Armenian delegation would come to Georgia to discuss the ongoing destruction of the Armenian church and cultural heritage. Head of the Karabakh Eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church Pargev Martirosian was to lead the delegation. The Armenian delegation, the statement said, was resolved to discuss the status of the Georgian Eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church. After the talks with the Patriarch of Georgia and the Synod, it was decided to set up a commission to study all the relevant issues in depth.
Late in March, Armen Rustamian, who represented the Highest Organ of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation Dashnaktsutiun and who also headed its parliamentary faction, met, on the Revolutionary Federation’s initiative, Ambassador of Georgia to Armenia Revaz Gachechiladze. The Armenian side, in particular, voiced its concern about the attempts to make the Armenian churches in Georgia “too Georgian.”
On 24-26 November, the Patriarchate of Georgia and the International Center of Christian Studies held the Second International Symposium on “Christianity in Our Life: Past, Present, and Future.” Speaking at the symposium, Levon Isakhanian, assistant for legal issues to the head of the Georgian Eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church, pointed out in particular that the Eparchy of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church has existed in Georgia since the 5th century. During the fifteen centuries of its functioning, said the speaker, it has erected about 600 religious buildings. He also insisted that since the religious organizations needed a corresponding legal status, the legal vacuum in this sphere should be eliminated.
This caused quite a stir in Georgian academic circles and the media: the speaker failed to indicate how he had arrived at the figure of 600. It looked more like a typical Soviet-time utopian and nationalist statement than a fact of history. Georgian academics are convinced that the facts were distorted in an attempt to pass them as the Armenians’ concern for democracy and the rights of minorities.
The political origins of the figure 600 were confirmed in an interview Vice-Speaker of the Armenian Parliament Vagan Ovanesian gave to The Georgian Times (published in the 17-24 November issue). In an interview which predated Levon Isakhanian’s statement, Vagan Ovanesian categorically demanded autonomy for Samtskhe-Javakhetia, in the southeast of Georgia. Back in the 19th century, the Russian administration settled Armenians who fled from Turkey there; this caused the exodus of local Georgians. Today, the Armenians are in the majority in this corner of Georgia.
On 3 December, the Armenian Eparchy distributed a statement under the eloquent title of “Anti-Armenian Sentiments in Georgia are Gaining Momentum.” The document said in particular: “For some reason, anti-Armenian sentiments are being fanned in Georgia, a country known for its tolerance and Christian traditions. Recently the process has become even more consistent. The Eparchy of the Holy Armenian Apostolic Church in Georgia is very concerned about the negative feelings toward the Armenians living in Georgia, their culture and history. We regret to say that these feelings are supported by the academic circles and some state structures of Georgia.”
It seems that the assessment of the response of some Georgian academics to Levon Isakhanian’s statement as persecution of the Armenians and their Church, not to mention cultural genocide and anti-Armenian hysterics, is overstated, to say the least.
Before that, in mid-September, those who fought in Karabakh joined the discussion; they sent a letter to President Saakashvili in which they assured him that they were prepared to defend the national interests of the Armenians in Georgia. The letter was inspired by the firing of several Armenians who worked at one of the customs offices on the Georgian-Armenian border. This stirred up mass unrest. The police were called in only after the local people had routed the customs office and the checkpoint.
The letter to the president said in particular: “The recent news from Javakhk and other places where Armenians live in compact groups arouses concern; it shows that the Georgian government is carrying out a wide-scale program aimed at squeezing out the Armenians; on several occasions the authorities tried to use force.”
The above shows that the issue is not related to the right to profess religion and own the churches—it is part of a much wider political context. It should be said here that the Karabakh conflict was also predated by similar statements about the identity of Armenian national interests, democracy, openness, and human rights.
Disputes about the church buildings are still going on and should be resolved by a commission the sides set up. This process might be disrupted by the inability of certain Orthodox circles to carry on a dialog, on the one hand, and the radical political context which gave rise to and is feeding the tension, on the other. There is the fear that if at least one of the demands proves justified and the Georgian side satisfies it, the scale of such demands will inevitably increase. So far it seems that the sides have reached an impasse: the Georgian Eparchy of the Armenian Apostolic Church insists, in very resolute terms, on the return of the Norashen Church in Tbilisi and Surb Nshan Church in Akhaltsikhe. It seems that to defuse the tension and move the problem into the academic and legal context, the Georgian side must demonstrate more initiative.
The demands of the Catholic Church, which wants back four cathedrals now used by the Patriarchate in Kutaisi, Gori, Ivlita, and Uda, should be satisfied. This should have been done long ago since the Catholics are open to cooperation and a dialog with the Orthodox Christians.
There are similar problems in the relations between the Orthodox Church and the Muslim community, the second largest religious community in Georgia, yet they are not marred by conflicts. The relations between the two religious communities are undoubtedly affected by tradition and past practices. It should be said that relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan are good; their common political interests undoubtedly affect the relations between these confessions. Despite certain concerns aroused by Wahhabism, which has already appeared in several Muslim states, relations between the Orthodox Christians and Muslims in Georgia have not changed, even though there are political forces intent on interpreting rare personal conflicts as religious intolerance.
On 5-8 June, 2005, Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II paid an official visit to Azerbaijan where he met Sheikh-ul-Islam and Chairman of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of the Caucasus Allahshukur Pashazade at his residence. On 6 June, Ilia II met Parliament Speaker Murtuz Aleskerov; and the same day he was received by President Ilham Aliev. On 7 June, Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II conducted a prayer service in the Christian Orthodox Cathedral of the Caspian Area and the city of Baku.
At the same time, the Muslims in Georgia are still experiencing certain difficulties, some of them dating back to Soviet times. In 1951, for example, the so-called Shi‘a Blue Mosque in Tbilisi was destroyed by the Soviet government. Today, the Shi‘a and the Sunni share one mosque. The Muslims want greater involvement in state administration and better social and economic conditions in the Azeri-populated regions. It should be added that the clashes on the Georgian-Azeri border between the local power structures and local Azeris forced to engage in smuggling to support their families have never been described in Azerbaijan as ethnic and religious persecution or genocide.
On 6 April, the parliament amended Art 1509 of the Civil Code, under which religious organizations acquired the right to register as non-commercial legal entities. The Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Lutheran Evangelical churches rejected this innovation and objected to different statuses for religious organizations. They demanded that a law on religious organizations be adopted, or that these structures sign an agreement with the state similar to that between the state and the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church.
Speaking in the parliament, Ombudsman Sozar Subari called on the country’s leaders to sign an agreement with religious organizations similar to the Constitutional Agreement between the state and the Georgian Christian Orthodox Church. Most of the deputies responded negatively, however, certain legal changes are obviously necessary. Such agreements cannot be signed with all the religious organizations—there are several dozen of them and some of them have a tiny following.
On 22 January, the Ministry of Education and Science and the Patriarchate signed a memorandum based on the agreement between the Patriarchate and the state. The newly signed document envisaged in particular that a joint commission be set up to write textbooks on Christian Orthodoxy and draft corresponding curricula; to create a system for screening, training, and appointing teachers; to draft procedures under which representatives of the Autocephalous Apostolic Orthodox Church of Georgia would be involved in drafting curricula and discussing textbooks on Christian Orthodoxy; to create a legal basis of funding, as well as of the property rights of the Georgian Church’s educational organizations and orphanages; and to decide on the forms and conditions of cooperation between the state and the Georgian Church in educating the youth. According to the ombudsman, the memorandum violated the constitutional principle of separation of the church from the state and implied discrimination of other confessions.5
On 8 April, the parliament passed the Law on General Education, under which proselytism, indoctrination, and demonstration of religious symbols for purposes other than academic in general schools were banned. The law limited the possibility of using the educational process for religious education.
The memorandum and the law were thus mutually contradictory, while their appearance within a very short period of time demonstrated that the people in power were doing their best to preserve good relations with the Christian Orthodox Church, especially with its radical wing, while still posing as liberals.
The year 2005 was a very important one as far as historical accommodation of the Christian Church to the current situation was concerned. In May, a Coordinating Center of Inter-religious Relations in State Development was set up under the Patriarchate. It concentrates on improving the social situation, introducing ideas of a healthy way of life among young people, restoring the state’s territorial integrity, etc. So far, these aims have remained on paper, but this is much more appropriate than the attitude toward people of other confessions demonstrated by the radicals among the Orthodox Christians.
A similar structure called the Council of Religions with 18 religious groups represented in it was set up under the ombudsman’s office to protect the rights of religious minorities and integrate them into the life of the state. There is a certain amount of tension between the two structures, but today they are mutually complementary. The ombudsman office is making statements which are not expected from the Patriarchate: about the media, which are demonstrating intolerance, or about clerics whose activities raise serious doubts.
On 21 June, the ombudsman and religious representatives of the religions in the Council of Religions signed a memorandum which said in particular: “We are convinced that we should help to build a democratic state ruled by the law; we should actively participate in civil integration, create an atmosphere of tolerance, take part in the peaceful settlement of conflicts, and shoulder social, moral, and ecological responsibility. We believe that we should work together to protect international standards of freedom, human rights, and principles of the Constitution of Georgia.”6
I have already written that on 24-26 November the Patriarchate and the International Center of Religious Studies organized the Second International Symposium on “Christianity in Our Life: Past, Present, and Future.” This multi-confessional event was attended by about 40 guests from other countries. Despite several unpleasant incidents, the symposium was interesting for all those who attended and demonstrated that the Patriarchate was willing to talk to other religious groups.
1 See: M. Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, University of California Press, 1993, p. 178. Back to text
2 For more detail, see: A. Krasikov, Globalizatsia i pravoslavie. Available at [http://www.archipelag.ru/geoculture/religions/Eurasia/orthodoxy/]. Back to text
3 Based on the interview Archpriest Georgy Zviadadze gave to the 24 Saati newspaper on 11 June. Back to text
4 Vedomosti Patriarkhii, No. 21 (328), 2-8 June, 2005. Back to text
5 For more detail, see: [http://www.sakartvelo.info/result]. Back to text
6 Ibidem. Back to text