Georgy Siamashvili, Official, the Kavkazskiy Dom Center, Editor, the Dialog newspaper (Tbilisi, Georgia)

Problems have been piling up in all spheres of public life in Georgiareligion being no exception. Society is displaying a great deal of intolerance and even extremism toward certain confessions and is itself steeped in prejudices and false piety it takes for true faith. This is undoubtedly rooted in the Soviet past; during the perestroika years traditional confessions were regaining their place in public life, this being especially true of Islam and Christianity. Very soon, however, religions became ethnically orientated while destructive nationalism renounced all norms of civilized society. Obviously, the church being an inalienable part of society is not free from these faults.

According to experts, lack of proper education is one of the most glaring faults together with the nearly non-existent moral standards, unstable psychic makeup, urge for domination and an inability to maintain a dialog with followers of different religions or philosophies. The preferences and stereotypes of the past are still very much alive; progressive ideas and democratic values are often rejected while an absolute conviction of ones mission and the right to teach others is reigning supreme. This is what we all inherited from the past. Atheism imposed on all from above has been replaced with a diktat of Christian Orthodoxy; Soviet conformism gave place to the nationalist-Orthodox conformism.

In September 2003, speaking at an international conference organized by the Center for Conflict Studies and Negotiations Secretary of the State Chancellery of Georgia P. Mamradze said: As a whole, people approve of pogroms of religious sects. In fact, they are ignorant of the basic elements of Christianity and do not know that the Evangelists and Baptists are not sectarians. When I announced that I was an agnostic, which meant that I denied a possibility of knowing God and grasping the meaning of the world, certain people pointed out that I should be expelled from the government. I would have been much wiser to describe myself an ardent Orthodox Christian. On the whole the moral climate in the republic smacks of communist times. Indeed, at that time a non-party member could not hope to carve out a career for himselftoday, true Christians are few and far between among the intellectuals while pagans and idol worshippers posing for true Christians are numerous.

The prelates are absolutely delighted with the swelling ranks of churchgoers. Time and again they describe our time as the time of spiritual resurrection. With them religious extremism, rising crime, robberies and hostage-taking pass for religious resurrection. Aggression and xenophobia of certain clergymen and their flock have left their imprint on the Catholicos-Patriarch who has to make more and more serious concessions. In 1997, the Georgian Church left the World Council of Churches by a decision of the Holy Synod (it had joined it in 1962) that expressed its regret that the Catholicos-Patriarch and other members of the Georgian clergy met representatives of other confessions at conferences and prayed together with them.

Cultural figures and academics are not immune to accusations of being opposed to Christian Orthodoxy. Protopresbyter Georgy Gamrekeli accused Nugzar Papuashvili, author of Vrata Religii (The Gates of Religion) of heresy and stated that if the Ministry of Education failed to prevent this textbook from reaching the Georgian schools the flock would insist on court trial of its author. In 1997, a musical radio program On Grief (mourning Christ) by N. Gelashvili never reached its listeners as a non-canonic work (according to the heads of the republican radio service). In a private talk with the present author they admitted that under an unofficial pressure of the Church they even avoid transmitting music of Bach and Mozart.

Protoprosbyter Basil Kobakhidze supplied interesting information at the seminar on religious studies conducted by the Kavkazskiy Dom Center. The Khareba (Annunciation) newspaper carried articles by archimandrites Lazar and Rafail who described Europe as a seat of Satan and the home of the satanic sects that do not allow Georgia to triumph. The latter vehemently attacked classical art and insisted that Goethe and Byron were perverts; the same tag was attached to classical tragedy, Romanticism, surrealism, and existentialism; Eri da beri (People and the Clergy), Mrevli (The Flock), Mokvasi (Thy Neighbor) and other periodicals are always prepared to make his thoughts public.

In his book called Gruzia: simuliatsia vlasti (Georgia: Simulating Power) Prof. G. Tevzadze has cited a typical example of the relationships between the religious and secular powers. One of the customs posts detained a batch of books addressed to the Jehovahs Witnesses and waited for instructions from the Patriarchate; the order to destroy the offending parcel was willingly carried out. Indeed, the customs officers who served the state obeyed orders of the prelates of the Church that, under the constitution, was separated from the state. Here is one more tale-telling example from the same book: Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II congratulated the parliament members and the country with joining the Council of Europe and added that the government should step up its struggle against the sects acting in the country. The author has remarked, with a great deal of humor, that the second part of the congratulatory message would have better suited a different occasion, viz. Georgias withdrawal from the organization that banned persecutions for religious motives.1

In 1999, Pope John Paul II visited Georgia at the invitation of the secular and religious authorities yet the planned mass on the bank of River Kura in the very heart of the Georgian capital was unexpectedly thwarted by massive rallies of the local clergy who protested under the pretext that the selected spot was the burial place of 100 thousands of Georgian martyrs who would be deprived of the bliss by the Papal mass. The secular and religious authorities preferred to beat a retreat; the Georgian bishops and clergymen did not pay their proper respects to the Pope and did not even kiss his hand. This made them notorious throughout the world. Another Papal mass was planned in the Palace of Sport yet the press center of the Patriarchate called on all the faithful to ignore it as not corresponding to the customs and rules of true faith. I wonder where did our clergymen find this ban concerning the liturgical rules of the Roman Catholic Church? wondered N. Gelashvili.2

By this ban the officials of the press center and all those who agreed with them opposed the positions of our worthy predecessors (G. Mtatsmindeli who during the great schism supported the Roman Church) and acted contrary to the commonly accepted norms of hospitality and diplomacy. They ignored the sacred norms of hospitality shared by the Georgian and other Caucasian nations. The anti-Papal campaign split Georgian society; Orthodox members of the government and intellectuals attended the service while the Patriarch and the Pope jointly lit a candle in the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in the town of Mtskhetaan act that amounted to a joint prayer.

In 2000, the Patriarchate refused to take part in the All-Caucasus Prayer to Save the Caucasus under the pretext that this was an ecumenical action (it is conducted every spring: all faithful with the exception of the Georgian Orthodox Christians synchronously pray in their temples for peace in the Caucasus and resurrection of their region). Because of this those of the Georgian Christians who wanted to pray had to do this in temples of other religions or lay organizations. By doing this the Georgian prelates oppose themselves to Christ and the Gospel; they seem to have been ignorant of the fact that Christ and the Apostles went to temples of Jews, Samaritans and pagans and that Christian services were first conducted in synagogues (and spent all their time in the Temple giving thanks to God (Luke 24:53)).

In October 1999, excommunicated priest Basil Mkalavishvili who had made it his job to do everything that the greater part of the Georgian Patriarchate and the flock want to be done came to the fore. He settles scores with the Jehovahs Witnesses, the Pentecost followers, Baptists, etc. In 2001-2002, he and his followers staged several pogroms, they beat up people, and burned religious books, the Bible among them. The pogroms of the Jehovahs Witnesses in Sachkhere, Rustavi and other areas were especially cruel; in Zugdidi and Merneuli the police were passively watching the pogroms timed to the planned congresses of the Jehovahs Witnesses in these cities. Acting clergymen are also actively involved in persecutions and book burning. The public was informed that in one of the churches close to the Temple of Zion people encouraged and guided by a clergyman burned Bhagawatgita, one of the greatest monuments of spiritual culture of mankind, and the book Krishnas Conscience. Followers of the cult of Krishna were beaten up and robbed by the so-called guys of the flock.

The Mkalavishvili men look at the officials of the Liberty Institute, the most consistent and selfless defenders of the freedom of religion, the fundamental democratic value proclaimed by the countrys constitution, as their worst enemies. Time and again they are confronted by the Basilists and have to flee to save their lives.

Prejudices and fetishism are flourishing in the republic; they take ugly forms, idol worshipping and worshipping of icons and other church symbols being their manifestations. The borderline between idols and icons is no longer discernible; it is quite often that service smacks of idol worshipping. There is an opinion among the clergymen and the laity that it is in Georgia alone that icons (even those displayed in museums) have force while in other countries, for example in America, the country of the faithless sinners they lose their sanctity and force. (It was mainly for this reason that two years ago two icon exhibitions, in the U.S. and Italy, were cancelled.)

The free-thinking and democratically minded public was especially concerned with the draft treaty between the Church and secular power discussed in the Conservation of Historical Monuments Society, the Ministry of Education, the Institute of Manuscripts of the Georgian AS, the Kavkazskiy Dom Center, the State University, the Ombudsman Office, the Freedom of Religion Center, etc. Public concern was mainly caused by the way the Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia was presented in the draft. Its idea and content were rejected outright. Academician E. Metreveli pointed out, in particular, that the project betrays an intention of the state and the Church to divide public property among themselves. The fact that the president, the parliament and all political parties unanimously supported the project that was, virtually, the first step away from the democratic constitution and toward a theocratic state, should be attributed to the coming elections and the fact that all democratic principles had been devalued thanks to the efforts of the same political forces. This created an illusion in the political community that it would be easy to attract voters solely by religious and nationalistic slogans, that is, with an active support of the Church. It should be said that the draft provision under which the Church and its infrastructure should be exempt from taxes till the Doomsday looked very appealing to those of the businessmen who hoped to acquire protection of the Church and avoid state control.

On 30 March, 2001 the parliament unanimously (with 191 votes) passed the Law on Introducing Changes and Amendments into the Constitution of Georgia under which Art 9 acquired Point 2 that said: Relationships between the State of Georgia and the Apostolic Autocephalous Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia are determined by the Constitutional Treaty. The Constitutional Treaty should completely correspond to the generally accepted principles and the international legal norms in particular in the sphere of human rights and freedoms.

Despite the fact that simultaneously the parliament adopted a decision On Manifestations of Religious Extremism that instructed all bodies of power to cut short all manifestations of religion-related violence everyone was aware of a radical change in the sphere of religion. According to the director of the South Caucasian Studies program Ivlian Khaindrava the Georgian Orthodox Church that had been more equal than the others became the first among equals. In other words, it was the only confession that acquired a constitutional status. It should be said in this connection that in September 2003 the Patriarchate supported by students who took to the streets prevented a treaty between Georgia and the Vatican. Public in general treated it with suspicion. In an official letter the Catholicos-Patriarch warned former President Shevardnadze that if signed this treaty would add tension to the relationships between the Orthodox Church of Georgia and the Vatican while Father Zenon, one of the prominent church figures, stated at a press conference that the document would have placed the Catholic Church on an equal footing with the Orthodox Church in the republic.3

Why are the highly placed clergymen frightened with this prospect? It has turned out that the confessions cannot agree on matters far removed from the dogmas of faith. In particular, state structures are unwilling to give back five buildings that used to belong to the Catholic Church in Kutaisi, Batumi, Gori, and Ude. In 1989-1990, people then in power took the cathedrals away from the Catholic community and transferred them to the Orthodox Church.

All Catholic communities wishing to build churches have to ask permission of the Orthodox Patriarchate. In Akhaltsikhe, which is a district center, the local community got a plot of land to build a church on; the design of the building is ready yet the local authorities do their best to prevent construction. They even incite common people to protest against the project. In 1989, the Catholic church in Kutaisi had been transferred to the Orthodox community; having failed to get it back the local Catholics asked for a site for a new church. The local authorities drafted a relevant decision and even opened an architectural competition. Nothing more happened since that time.

On 14 October, 2002 the state in the person of President Shevardnadze and the Apostolic Autocephalous Christian Orthodox Church of Georgia in the person of Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia Ilia II signed a Constitutional Treaty; on 22 October of the same year it was ratified by the parliament and the Holy Synod.

While the draft was still being edited EU experts pointed out that the connection between the Georgian Constitution and the Constitutional Treaty was not quite clear. At the same time, it says nothing about the sides responsibilities while some of its provisions obviously require amendments to existing laws or adoption of new ones. Prominent Georgian scholar Zurab Kiknadze described Art 11 of the Treaty as an odious one under which the state assumed partial responsibility for restitution. He has written with a great deal of puzzlement: The Patriarchate demands that the material losses the Church incurred under Soviet power be repaid as if Sovietization, de-kulakization, collectivization, confiscation, the prewar and postwar repressions never affected the entire population of Georgia irrespective of ethnic, religious or social affiliation.4

Without going into details one can say that the Treaty adoption indicates that freedom of religion and the confessional relations in Georgia are far removed from the democratic standards. It is interesting to note that experts and analysts insist that having signed the Treaty the Georgian Orthodox Church undermined rather than consolidated its positions. Political scientist Ramaz Sakvarelidze has pointed out: There is a danger of the Churchs weaker religious position while its administrative might will increase. This happened many times in the past: Inquisition gave rise to European atheism; the administratively strong Russian Orthodox Church led to communist atheism, etc. We can say that the course the Church is pursuing today (that manifests itself in religious intolerance) is fraught with its weakness that is equally dangerous for the Church and the state.

Such concerns are well founded. There are attacks at meetings of members of other confessions that go unpunished (the Jehovahs Witnesses suffered most though there were victims among the Baptists and others) perpetrated by the mob of unbalanced schismatic Basil Mkalavishvili (there have been hundreds of similar ugly incidents). Member of the Georgian parliament Guram Sharadze (leader of the Nasha Gruzia movement who insists that Orthodoxy should be made a state religion in Georgia) supplies ideological support to these outrageous acts. Religious books are burnt in public; there was a skirmish on 10 July, 2002 at the office of NGO Liberty Institute that was bold enough to defend the victims rights; and invectives in the mass media against all those who oppose all manifestations of religious intolerance and violence. The law enforcement bodies and supreme power were contemplating these developments in silence, which looked like an encouragement. It was quite recently (May 2003) that criminal proceedings were instituted against Mkalavishvili who was detained for three months.

Here are more details taken from Khaindravas article. In the summer of 2001, the Church awarded the then representative of the president in Samtskhe-Javakheti (governor) Gigla Baramidze a charter and a silver cross For Personal Contribution to Strengthening the GOC and in Connection with the 2000th Anniversary of Christianity blessed by the Catholicos-Patriarch. In February 2002, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee for Self-Administration and Regional Policies said that Baramidzes administration regularly misused the money allocated by the state for teaching Georgian to the local (Armenian) people and spent it on its own staff. By that time the governor had already been dismissed at his own request, therefore this statement had no legal consequences.

Recently, the Patriarchate tried to prevent a tour of an English theater in Tbilisi. The statement signed by the Patriarch said that the plays based on Shakespeares sonnets contained homosexual and erotic scenes that had created a scandal in London.

Today, official events of the authorities and the opposition (meetings, openings of exhibitions, presentations, laying foundations, etc.) inevitably involve clerics.

New churches and chapels of dubious architectural value built using dubious money are appearing everywhere; a huge St. Trinity Cathedral is being erected on one of the heights. This monument of the Shevardnadze-Ilia II epoch will dominate the city where children and the elderly beg in the streets and where many people cannot buy medical services.

In 2001, the embassies of the United States and Great Britain issued a joint statement about the facts of religious intolerance in the republic. On 5 February, 2002 the leaders of the Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Lutheran, and Baptist communities sent an open letter to the president in which they asked him to take measures to stem religion-induced violence. In the summer of the same year 15 U.S. congressmen called on the President Shevardnadze to elaborate effective measures. Ben Campbell, Chairman of the Senate Commission on Security and Cooperation, pointed out that President Shevardnadze and Georgian authorities appear to have turned a blind eye to the ongoing violence against church groups, and expressed his hope that the statement would be taken as a clear sign of the United States extreme concern. He said further: It is expected that the Georgian authorities will take all necessary measures to protect people irrespective of their religious beliefs.

Every year (or rather every six months) the ombudsman tries to attract the parliaments attention to the sad state of affairs in the field of the freedom of religionwith no results. Civil society is doing its best to attract attention to the same issue. In December 1999, the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development organized a discussion on the subject Religious Minorities in (Semi)democratic Societies. Here are several quotes from the contributions to the conference that remained a voice in the wilderness. Papuashvili has written: Ignorance or to put it mildly, inadequate competence of the authorities and considerable part of those working in the system of education in the religion and law issues is the greatest problem.

According to Zurab Chiaberashvili: The person who declares his adherence to one (Christian Orthodox) idea and lives according to different (non-Christian) ideas is the best possible support for those who look at society as a mob and an ignorant crowd. This person is a complete analogue of a communist of Soviet times who declared one kind of things (equality, fraternity, and unity) and did others (embezzlement).5

It is interesting to say that none of the prominent Georgian politicians is religious, nor do they adhere to Orthodox fundamentalism. The depth of their faith cannot be measured yet their way of life and deeds speak for themselves. President Shevardnadze, who retired in November 2003, former state minister Jorbenadze, ruler of Adzharia Abashidze, the main Labor activist Natelashvili, the main figure in the Socialist Party Rcheulishvili, the main industrialist Topadze, the main Christian Democrat Lortkipanidze (the list is much longer) were party and Komsomol functionaries of varied consequence in the Soviet past. Their political activities have nothing in common with Christian values. The new opposition, formerly part of the presidents party, is not too religious either: the speaker Nino Burdzhanadze; the leader of the National Movement Saakashvili, the chief united democrat Zhvania; the chief New Right Gamkrelidze and Gachechiladze as well as the leaders of the republicans and traditionalists (two parties that have survived since the national-liberation stage). None of them are bold enough to openly talk about the disturbing trendsthis may cost them votes. The National Democrats (who back in the 1980s formulated a dubious and vague idea of a teo-democracy without going into details) stand apart from the rest of the political crowd.

Paata Zakareishvili has said with good reason: The pernicious trend to use religious values as small change is obvious. Time will come when the tension among religious organizations will block the way to a more democratic state. Regrettably, the Georgian political forces either refuse to look at that problem as a serious one or, being sure of their positions because of ignorance and quasi-patriotic incompetence, remain in the hold of illusory complacency.6

Another expert, Avto Jokhadze is of the same opinion. He has written: It happened more than once that political, ethnic or other conflicts acquired religious hues, it so happened that the conflicts (non-religious) causes disappeared while the conflict dragged on as religious one.7

Experts of civil society are aware of this. One wonders whether society as a whole is aware of this. After all, these trends receive support from certain quarters.

Here are returns of a nationwide sociological poll that involved over 1,200 respondents that will help us clarify the situation:

Table 1

Level of Trust in Various Institutions



Do not trust

No answer

Refused to answer
















State security










State Chancellery





Auditing Chamber










Tax service





Christian Orthodox Church





Environmental Protection Ministry





Anticorruption Council





This is a convincing proof that while the nation has no trust in the totally corrupted, absolutely incompetent state structures that have no interest in the nation the people try to find a structure to pin their hopes on and to preserve their confidence in the future. Whether this structure is reliable is another question: more often than not clergymen betray themselves as people of dubious moral and intellectual qualities while together they are perceived as the most respected institution. Strange are Thy ways!8

There was an earlier poll mentioned by Gia Nodia. In 1997, the Arnold-Bergstrasser Institute (Germany) and the Caucasian Institute for Peace, Democracy and Development in Georgia revealed that 65 percent of the polled believed that faith and religious values should determine all aspects of social and state life. In the world sociological practice it is the answer to this question that identifies the degree of public support for religious fundamentalism. To put it differently, the answer means that the public refuses to separate religion from the sociopolitical life and that the former should dominate over the latter. According to the 1997 poll, Georgia was ready to embrace religious fundamentalism.

Significantly, about 70 percent of supporters of fundamentalism were studentsthe fact that speaks volumes about the countrys future. While in 1978 only 1 percent of the polled among the students of Tbilisi University regarded themselves as religious persons, in 2000 the share rose to nearly 89 percent. Obviously, in 1978 few were bold enough to admit that they were believersin 2000, part of the respondents proved not bold enough to speak about their atheism. The trend is clear enough.

Here is how Sozar Subeliani explains the trend: A considerable part of society looks at Christian Orthodoxy as national ideology of sorts and places its national role much higher than the Churchs mystical or social role. This explains why all other religious trends are seen as a threat to the Georgian state and national unity, which breeds aggressiveness toward them.9

According to Z. Kiknadze: Confessional peace in Georgia is directly connected with the nations social awareness. As long as all other confessions are perceived as alien and therefore hostile, there will be no peace in the country This is what we have inherited from Byzantium. Just like in Byzantium our society is excessively politically awareconfessional contradictions are manifestations of this. We are dealing with Byzantine mentality and no law, no matter how efficient, can deliver us from it.10

G. Nodia has offered another interesting comment: One can say that there is a contradiction between the corporate interests of the Church and the national interests. Georgia needs state unity, stronger democratic institutions and, what is even more important, confessional tolerance The Orthodox Church interprets this course as a certain threat to its corporate interests. One should mention here a recent letter with which 42 prominent public figures addressed the Catholicos-Patriarch. They asked several very important questions in a very respectful tone. The letter betrayed their concern with the problems piling up in the religious sphere. The response was easy to predict: How dared you to speak about this? What were your true intentions? How dared you to undermine the only sacred thing left to us?11

In his speech dedicated to the 25th anniversary of enthronization of John Paul II a Catholic clergyman Gabriel Bragantini pointed out that after the Papal visit to Georgia the Catholics became even more persecuted. Said the priest: We are often called a sect and are often accused of plans of making Georgia a Catholic country (?!). When answering the militant students who wanted to know why the agreement between the Vatican and the government of Georgia had not been made public Father Gabriel explained that there was merely a draft. Should the Georgian side approve of it a final variant would have been prepared and made public. The students involved in the protest actions (or, rather, those who incited them) wanted to preserve the Orthodox Churchs dominant position. They are convinced that it will revive and bring in a new golden age. One would like to know when this is expected to happen. T. Meskhi, former employee of the department of foreign relations of the Patriarchate of Georgia, published a book Da budet vse edino (2002) in which she said: Today Georgias territorial integrity has been violated, its economy is ruined. The political parties are steeped in squabbles among themselves. The nation is split. The Church is the only institution that has remained united. Split itand our enemies will rejoice. Detach it from world Orthodoxy and Christianity and Georgia will disappear. This is what our enemies want. We all know that the nation is deprived of information, that our people do not know what ecumenism, the World Council of Churches and the European Church Conference mean. They are ignorant of their aims and the style of work, therefore they will easily believe any lie about them. At all times betrayal of Orthodoxy amounted to betrayal of Georgia. You will easily pass for the defenders of Orthodoxy but are you genuine defenders? What do you know? What is your past experience? I say that people are ignorant: do you know what Orthodoxy is and what ecumenism is? Have you attended ecumenical congresses; have you listened to what Orthodox or other Christians had to say at them? Have you read their acts? No, you have read nothing except articles of those who oppose these movements and who are brimming with envy and spite. You should confess your sinit is not you who are responsible for it. I was working at the department of international relations of the Patriarchate between May 1978 and December 1995 and not a single time did I hear reports of those who attended these forums and conferences.12

There is a lot of criticism in the above and a great deal of self-criticism: while working at the Patriarchate the author never tried to remedy the situation even though she was aware of the fact that nothing was done to educate the people at least in the spheres in which the opponents and the media were spreading false information.

The author has asked with good reason: Why was an ultimatum of four monks and six novices sufficed for the Synod to retreat? In which way do they dominate those who wanted to keep the Orthodox Church of Georgia within the World Council of Churches? One wants to believe that this happened not because the Patriarchate had to take into account the imperial forces behind those who threatened with a schism. The public was not informed about the signal developments in the life of the Church. At all times public opinion was ignored; today the nation is regarded as a herd that has to follow several hierarchs who have direct contacts with God. It is expected that the nation will obey these ignorant people and approve their decisions.13

Today, the majority of the clergy and a greater part of their flock are little better than medieval obscurantists and aggressive ignoramuses. In their time a constellation of outstanding Georgian enlighteners fought aggressive ignorance and obscurantism. Today, in the 21st century we have to resume the fight. Time alone will tell whether we have enough strength to succeed.

1 See: G. Tevzadze, Gruzia: simuliatsia vlasti, Tbilisi, 1999, p. 44.
2 See: N. Gelashvili, Religia i obshchestvo, Collection of materials, Tbilisi, 2003.
3 See: I. Khaindrava, Vera bez nadezhdy i liubvi, Kavkazskiy aktsent, No. 19 (92), 2003.
4 Svoboda, No. 1 (13), 2003, pp. 31-43.
5 I. Khaindrava, op. cit.
6 Ibidem.
7 Ibidem.
8 Ibidem.
9 Ibidem.
10 Ibidem.
11 Ibidem.
12 T. Meskhi, Pravoslavnaia tserkov i ekumenicheskoe dvizhenie, Tbilisi, 2002, pp. 14-15.
13 Ibidem.

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