GEORGIA: Major Confessions Gave Advance Consent to Concordat.

Geraldine Fagan, Keston News Service, 10 October 2001

Although some of their representatives have expressed concern about the prospect of a constitutional agreement, or concordat, between the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Georgian state since the introduction of associated constitutional amendments on 30 March, Keston News Service has learned that six major confessions in Georgia earlier signed formal documents with the Orthodox Patriarchate agreeing to just such a concordat.

Prior to the constitutional amendments, according to Georgi Tskhomelidze, secretary to the apostolic administrator of the Caucasus, Monsignor Giuseppe Pasotto, Archimandrite Zenon (Yaradzhuli) of the Georgian Patriarchate concluded written agreements with six confessions - Catholics, Lutherans, Baptists, Jews, Muslims and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Speaking to Keston on 21 September, Tskhomelidze said that while each of these texts included a clause giving support for a constitutional agreement between the state and the Orthodox Church, they were not identical, but included points on which the confession in question was particularly anxious to make progress with the Patriarchate.

Speaking to Keston on 21 September, the main government official in Georgia in charge of religious issues, Tamaz Papuashvili, admitted that he was surprised that these six major confessions had given advance agreement to the concordat, but commented that it was 'their business'.

The joint declaration signed by Archmandrite Zenon and Monsignor Pasotto on 6 January 2001 states that 'the Catholic Church in Georgia, recognising their special role in the history of Georgia, hopes that the Orthodox Church might be able to draw up a constitutional agreement which might govern relations between the two subjects (the Orthodox Church and the state).' With respect to restitution of church property, it additionally affirms the two parties' commitment 'to go deeper into the heart of the problem and resolve it in the Spirit of justice.' The Catholic Church is particularly keen to recover five originally Catholic churches currently held by the Patriarchate (See separate KNS article).

A similar joint declaration signed by Archimandrite Zenon and Bishop Gert Hummel of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Georgia on 28 February 2001 includes the clause: 'The Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Georgia supports the conclusion of a constitutional agreement between the Georgian state and the Georgian Orthodox Church.' A further clause states that the Georgian Orthodox Church supports 'the legal recognition of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Georgia.'

Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Church told Keston on 11 October that his church signed an agreement with the Patriarchate on 5 February. ‘The agreement spoke of the rights of the Orthodox Church in Georgian culture and the desire of the two churches to work together, their readiness to participate in building up the Georgian nation, working together in the area of human rights and the establishment of peace in the region. It also condemned fanaticism, violence and proselytism.’ Following questioning of the condemnation of proselytism, he said, a supplementary agreement had been signed, dated 12 May. ‘The second agreement admitted that some people could not understand the real meaning of the condemnation of proselytism in the first agreement. It does not rule out conversion by preaching and does not disown preaching and missionary activity. It does disown recruiting someone from one religion to another by non-religious, non-ecclesial and non-ethical means, such as by humanitarian aid or bribery.’

In what he stressed was his personal view, Georgi Tskhomelidze described the Catholics' signing of a joint declaration as a 'mistake', as it had since become clear that the Patriarchate was not minded to give up the formerly Catholic churches: 'All they wanted was for everyone to approve the concordat.' Following the constitutional amendments, Bishop Songulashvili, also expressed concern about the development (See KNS 4 April 2001).

Speaking to Keston on 20 September, Metropolitan Daniel (Datuashvili) of Sukhumi and Abkhazia mentioned that leaders of what he described as Georgia' s 'traditional' confessions - he listed Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Lutherans and the Armenian Apostolic Church in that order - had consented to the Patriarchate's 'privileged agreement.' The texts signed by the Catholics and Lutherans indicate that recognition as traditional by the Georgian Patriarchate - and potentially the state - has been a crucial incentive in the six major non-Orthodox confessions giving this consent.

Following the constitutional amendments in March, it was representatives of these confessions who were invited to meet with President Eduard Shevardnadze on 10 July. According to Metropolitan Daniel, the six will assist in the drawing up of a draft law on religion (See KNS 11 July 2001).

Conspicuously absent from this process are representatives of other minority confessions, such as the non-Patriarchate Orthodox, Jehovah's Witnesses and Pentecostals (of whom, according to Bishop Songulashvili, there are 'very few' in Georgia.) On 18 September Levan Ramishvili, the director of the Liberty Institute, a human rights organisation in Tbilisi, told Keston that the idea of a concordat system originated with human rights advocates, who thought it might ward off the introduction of a law on religion granting rights in a sliding scale to the Orthodox Patriarchate, 'traditional' confessions and others. Just this scenario is taking shape, however, and the consequences for some of those in the 'others' category - who are already bearing the brunt of anti-sect attacks - does not appear to be a widespread source of concern. On 21 September Baadur Gelashvili, director of the Institute of State Law and Religion (a human rights organisation supported by the European Union, the British Embassy in Georgia and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) inexplicably claimed to Keston that there was no religious persecution in Georgia during the Soviet period, but the principal victims of current persecution were the Baptists. (END)