GEORGIA: Minorities Concerned over Orthodox Concordat.

by Aleksandr Schipkov, Keston News Service, 4 April 2001

Some of Georgia's minority faiths have expressed their concerns about a constitutional amendment adopted by parliament on 30 March establishing relations between the state and the Orthodox Church on the basis of a concordat. The parliamentary move, which was approved with 188 deputies in favour and none against, will lead to the adoption of a concordat to govern relations between the state and the Orthodox Church currently being drawn up by a group of deputies and officials of the Orthodox Patriarchate. Despite pledges by President Eduard Shevardnadze on 2 April in his weekly radio interview that the constitutional amendment and the concordat would not harm the religious liberty of non-Orthodox citizens, some other faiths remain concerned, and plan to discuss their concerns at a forthcoming meeting with the president (see KNS 3 April 2001).

Shevardnadze emphasised that `the rights of other religious organisations and of atheists' would not be affected. `This law does not mean that any religion will be oppressed or treated as inferior,' he declared. `This would contradict the aspiration of our constitution and the principles on which the formation of our state is based.' The president noted that `representatives' of the Armenian Church, the Catholic Church, Judaism and Islam reacted to the amendment of the Constitution `with understanding'.

The draft agreement regulates relations between the Church and the State and covers areas including the army, prisons, hospitals, education, social welfare, marriage, property relations and church finances. Some of the provisions are: the Church fulfils its functions on the basis of the norms of canon law within the framework of the agreement and Georgian legislation; clergy are not subject to military conscription; clergy have the right not to give evidence about facts that they are told confidentially as spiritual counsellors or which become known to them; the State recognises marriage registered by the church; the State will facilitate the creation of a body of military chaplains in the army; the State will facilitate the creation of a body of prison chaplains; programmes for the teaching of Orthodox doctrine in schools and the appointment of teachers proposed by the Church are to be confirmed by the State; the State and the Church have the right to implement joint social welfare programmes; the property of the Church is exempt from land tax and property tax; the property of the Church and other property rights are guaranteed by law; the State does not have the right to confiscate property from the Church; the Church has the right to receive donations and also income from letting its property.

Three drafts of the Constitutional agreement have been published, though the text will continue to be refined. The most recent draft has been sent for advice to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which is expected to give its opinion in May as to whether the agreement corresponds to international norms.

The consultations with the Council of Europe about the concordat are not binding as officials believe the long-standing precedent of concluding concordats between various states and the Catholic church is an indication of the legitimacy of the practice. During the present papacy alone the Vatican has concluded about 60 bilateral diplomatic treaties with European partners.

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Church, told Keston on 2 April his church is concerned about the constitutional amendment. `I am dubious about the idea, since the position with regard to other religious bodies is not clear.' He said his church is also willing to enter into treaty relations with the state, but only if treaties are concluded with all religious organisations.

In response to these decisions four of the country's major Christian churches - the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical-Lutheran Church and the Baptist Church - have joined together to lobby for their interests. These churches are trying to achieve either the adoption of a special law on religious associations (Georgia has no such law) or the establishment of simple treaty relations (rather than constitutional agreements) between the state and all religious organisations.

Levan Ramishvili of the Tbilisi-based NGO the Liberty Institute told Keston by telephone on 2 April that many human rights activists regard the model of a constitutional agreement as more appropriate, as the adoption of a special law on freedom of conscience might repeat the Russian situation and lead to a law with discriminatory provisions. `But we believe that a concordat should be concluded with all religious associations regardless of their numbers and how long they have been active in Georgia.' Ramishvili proposes proceeding in stages: first an agreement with the Orthodox Church, then with all other religious groups.

However, Orthodox representatives have told Keston they would resist any constitutional agreements with any other faiths. `The Orthodox Church would welcome agreements between the state and other faiths, but would not welcome any constitutional agreements with other faiths,' Zurab Khovrebadze, deputy head of the Patriarchate's press service, told Keston on 3 April. `Such agreements must be on a lower level.' He declared that as the `traditional faith' of the Georgian people, the Orthodox Church had the right to be regarded as above other faiths, claiming that Orthodox constitute the `absolute majority' of the population.

Basil Mkalavishvili, a priest defrocked by the Patriarchate and now under the jurisdiction of Greek Old Calendarists and who leads the Gldani Orthodox diocese, strongly opposes the constitutional agreement, according to his press secretary Irina Gogalishvili. `This constitutional agreement is directed against us,' she told Keston by telephone from Tbilisi on 2 April. `The Ecumenical Georgian Patriarchate is increasing its own rights and trying to get back the lands which belonged to the Orthodox Church before the revolution and also to gain possession of all the church valuables which are today housed in museums. We are against the concordat. We want to declare Orthodoxy as the state religion, call a church assembly and elect a patriarch.' (END)