GEORGIA: Parish Denied Building Permission.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 9 March 2001

An application for permission to build a church in the city of Kutaisi, western Georgia, has been blocked for one year. It is from an Orthodox parish outside the Georgian Patriarchate’s jurdistiction. The former and current chief architects and deputy mayor have either claimed that all church building in Georgia needs permission from the local Patriarchate bishop or insisted that the parish’s site is not suitable. `They are demanding permission from the Patriarchate before we can build our church,' Father Gela Aroshvili of the Kutaisi parish’s jurisdiction, told Keston News Service from Tbilisi. `It's not in the law, but they still do it.' City officials - including Mayor Ramaz Mkheidze - told Keston they cannot recall the parish's application.

The Kutaisi parish - led by Father David Georgadze - is under Metropolitan Ephraim (Spanos), based in Boston (USA), whose jurisdiction is not recognised as canonical by the Orthodox world. Six parishes and three monasteries are in his jurisdiction in Georgia, all of which left the Patriarchate after 1997 or have since formed. Metropolitan Ephraim - who last visited Georgia in November - told Keston on 8 March that his communities `have difficulties across the board'.

The parish identified a privately-owned land plot and lodged a building application with chief architect Ramaz Saladze on 10 March 2000. He responded that they required permission from the local Patriarchate bishop, Metropolitan Kalistrat. On 26 April the parish turned to the deputy mayor, Onisim Ugrekhelidze, who told them that an Orthodox church can only be built with Metropolitan Kalistrat's blessing, without explaining why. In July the parish lodged architectural plans with Saladze `showing that the building was technically feasible and suited the neighbourhood', as Father Aroshvili put it. On 19 July the parish received another negative response.

The parish approached the mayor, but Mkheidze sent the letter onto the chief architect, who gave the same response. In December it applied to the new chief architect, from Septamber, Suliko Gagua. Gagua responded on 15 December that according to the city plan only a private home may be built on the plot. `This is only an excuse,' Father Aroshvili insisted to Keston on 23 February. `It is not written in the law that permission is required from the Patriarchate - that's why they didn't mention it in their last letter.'

Asked about the rejections, Mayor Mkheidze told Keston on 7 March through an aide (he declined to come to the phone) that he `didn't know of such facts'.

Asked about the denial of permission on 9 March, Gagua declared: `This is absolutely not the case.' He declared that on taking up his post he met Metropolitan Kalistrat and `proposed a form of cooperation', suggesting the Patriarchate submit a list of locations where church building is planned over the next 25 years. `They gave us the list and we reserved these places for them. We have ensured they will not be used for any other purpose for the next 25 years.' He reported proudly that three Patriarchate churches had begun construction since he took over. Reminded that Father Georgadze's church is not subject to the Patriarchate he declared: `I don't remember. No-one has appealed to me.' Reminded of his 15 December letter he said he would have to go back to his files. He denied that non-Patriarchate churches needed permission from the Patriarchate. `Of course they don't need permission from Metropolitan Kalistrat - it's a different denomination.' Told that his predecessor and the deputy mayor had insisted this was so, he responded: `Maybe they need his agreement, but not his permission. I must find out.' He said Father Georgadze should come to discuss the application, indicating he would be open to dialogue.

Father Aroshvili maintains that Metropolitan Kalistrat is close to the city authorities and can exercise influence to halt non-Patriarchate churches. He fears that under the new concordat between President Eduard Shevardnadze and the Patriarchate, due for parliamentary ratification on 15 March, the Patriarchate will be able to veto all other Orthodox church building. `There is a point in the concordat that Orthodox churches can only be built with the Patriarchate's permission. This violates our rights as a religious minority. Of course, they won't give permission.'

Many non-Orthodox have encountered difficulties building new churches or regaining places of worship confiscated during the Soviet period, including Catholics, the Armenian Apostolic Church and the Jewish community. Some of these places of worship are in the hands of the Orthodox Patriarchate, which refuses to return them. (END)