GEORGIA: Patriarchate Resists Construction And Restitution Of Catholic Churches.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 10 October 2001

The Catholic Church in Georgia faces not only difficulties similar to those encountered by alternative Orthodox groups when they attempt to build churches (see KNS 2 October 2001), but also in recovering those church buildings which are historically Catholic.

On 21 September Georgi Tskhomelidze, secretary to the head of the Apostolic Administration of the Caucasus, Bishop Giuseppe Pasotto, told Keston that the Catholic parish of over 250 members in the western town of Kutaisi is currently unable to build a church in the city. Although the parish has purchased private land for this purpose, said Tskhomelidze, the Kutaisi authorities told them informally earlier this year that since the local Orthodox bishop is opposed to the construction of the church, it cannot go ahead. 'Bishop Giuseppe intends to take the matter to court,' Tskhomelidze told Keston.

In the southern town of Akhaltsikhe, said Tskhomelidze, the local authorities are likewise obstructing construction of a Catholic church upon land purchased by the city's 150-strong parish. In a letter to Bishop Pasotto from Akhaltsikhe mayor's office dated 14 February 2001, Sh. Naskhidashvili explains that, since the partly built block of flats still situated on the site belongs to the municipality, permission for construction should have been obtained from that body before the plot was sold. In addition, writes Naskhidashvili, 'all questions relating to the construction of churches must be agreed with the Georgian Patriarchate.'

Elsewhere in Georgia, the Catholic Church has been trying to recover those of its church buildings which were confiscated by the Soviet authorities. In Kutaisi, Gori, Batumi, Ude and Ivlita, said Tskhomelidze, former Catholic church buildings were handed over to the Orthodox Church during the period 1989-90. When the Catholic Church asked for their return during informal discussions with representatives of the Georgian Orthodox Church earlier this spring, he told Keston, a formal bilateral commission was set up to examine the issue.

In an 11 August statement setting out its official position on the churches, however, secretary to Patriarch Ilya II of Georgia, Archpriest Levan Pirtskhalaishvili, stresses that they were given to the Orthodox Church as a result of the official decision of the authorities. Subsequently consecrated to the Orthodox Church according to canon law, he writes, 'they have thus become parish churches.' Pirtskhalaishvili also argues that, since there is no law on religion in Georgia which would give the baseline for legal rulings, the Catholic Church's request is 'premature'.

Without referring directly to the fact that the churches in question were built following Georgia's annexation by Russia in 1801, the 11 August statement also asserts that 'the autocephalous Orthodox Church is unable to consider all the acts committed during the period of its annexation as legitimate and acceptable, and reserves the sole right to define, within its canonical limits, the re-establishment of the status quo existing before loss of independence.'

When asked about the Catholics' property problems on 20 September, Georgia's main official in charge of religious affairs, Tamaz Papuashvili, appeared to be aware only of the situation in Akhaltsikhe: 'Everything was supposed to be alright - but then the city mayor's office claimed that the land had been incorrectly privatised.' However, according to Papuashvili, the city authorities' objections to the construction are more than simply bureaucratic: 'They were against the Catholics building from the start.' (END)