GEORGIA: Patriarchate Veto On Alternative Orthodox Construction.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 2 October 2001

More than five months after parliament adopted a constitutional amendment establishing relations between the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church on the basis of a concordat, no such document has yet been signed. There are indications, however, that the authorities are already following at least one of the latest draft's provisions: 'The Church approves plans for Orthodox churches and other church buildings and grants permission for their construction with the agreement of the special state services.'

The parish of the breakaway Orthodox Church in Georgia in the western town of Kutaisi is still unable to build a church despite having purchased private land to do so, the dean of the Church's four communities in Georgia, Fr Gela Aroshvili, told Keston News Service on 19 September. When the parish lodged a building application in March 2000, both Kutaisi's chief architect and deputy mayor informed them that permission was required from the local Patriarchate bishop (see KNS 9 March 2001).

Speaking to Keston in Tbilisi on 19 September, Fr Aroshvili said that approximately four months ago the parish, which has some 60 members, decided to file a suit with a local Kutaisi court challenging the obstruction to their plans, but without result. 'They keep trying to stop the case being heard - every time we tried to file suit they asked for a court fee but they wouldn't tell us the sum or to whom it was payable, and then they said the payment period had expired.'

Fr Aroshvili's Orthodox Church in Georgia does not have cordial relations with the Georgian Orthodox Church, from which it in protest at the latter's membership of the World Council of Churches (though it has since left). 'There are doctrines in Protestantism and Orthodoxy which negate one another,' explained Fr Aroshvili, 'you can't mix them in some kind of sauce.' The Church is under the jurisdiction of the Boston-based North American Orthodox Church, which is not recognised as canonical by most of the Orthodox world.

As a result of the situation in Kutaisi, Fr Aroshvili told Keston, the Church's 300 parishioners in Tbilisi have built an 'educational' centre containing a church in the capital rather than a church building per se: 'If we had tried to build just a church building we wouldn't have been allowed.'

Fr Aroshvili commented with surprise that the television channel considered most western-orientated, Rustavi 2, had recently carried an item about the construction of a church by another priest outside the Georgian Orthodox Church, Fr Basil Mkalavishvili, in which the narrator pointed out that the Patriarchate had not given him permission to build. Fr Mkalavishvili was defrocked by Patriarch Ilya II in May 1995 after likewise demanding that the Patriarchate leave the World Council of Churches. Notorious for conducting violent attacks on Jehovah's Witnesses, Pentecostals and Baptists (see KNS 26 September 2001), he has no links with the Orthodox Church in Georgia - Fr Aroshvili commented to Keston that he found Fr Mkalavishvili's approach unacceptable: 'the fight against non-Orthodox must be with words, by preaching the Truth.'

Near the final stop of a Tbilisi metro line on 19 September, Fr Mkalavishvili showed Keston the early stages in construction of what will be the Church of the Iveria Icon of the Mother of God. Parishioners began building the church a month ago after purchasing private land, he said, upon which worship services are currently held in an open-sided temporary structure. Before obtaining enough money to buy the land, said Fr Mkalavishvili, his parish had met in the open air for six years, since the authorities would not allocate a plot in the usual way: 'We wrote to the city mayor but they wouldn't give us anything.'

On 20 September Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili), Archbishop of Sukhumi and Abkhazia, who is resident in Tbilisi, maintained that the state alone approved construction of Orthodox churches. As Georgia does not yet have a law on religion, he commented to Keston, there was no legal personality status for religious organisations, so that 'schismatics do their own thing: Basil built his church because of this situation. But it is another matter if it will ever be registered.'

According to the main government official in charge of religious issues, Tamaz Papuashvili, there is indeed no automatic right to build since there is no provision for the registration of religious organisations as legal entities. Normally, he told Keston on 20 September, 'if a church wants to build they approach the mayor's office, which allocates land and approves architectural plans.' Papuashvili confirmed that the Georgian Orthodox Church often vetoed construction of non-mainstream Orthodox churches: 'There are frequently such cases - and it irritates me,' he told Keston. (END)