GEORGIA: Orthodox-State Concordat Signed.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 15 October 2002

After several years of consideration behind closed doors, the "constitutional agreement" or concordat between the Georgian state and the Orthodox Church was ceremoniously signed in the Svetitskhoveli cathedral in Mtskheta near Tbilisi yesterday (14 October) by President Eduard Shevardnadze and Patriarch-Catholicos Ilya II. It has received mixed reviews from religious communities and human rights activists (see separate KNS article). Although the text still needs to be approved by both the Patriarchate's Holy Synod and by parliament, and laws need to be adopted or amended to put its provisions into practice, Levan Ramishvili of the Tbilisi-based Liberty Institute believes this will be a formality. "Parliament will be almost unanimous - there'll be only a handful of individuals against it," he told Keston News Service on 14 October.

The discussion over the past few years - led by the inter-factional parliamentary commission chaired by the deputy speaker, Gigi Tsereteli - has been shrouded in some secrecy. "The original text was published some two years ago," Bishop Malkhaz Songulashvili, head of the Baptist Union, told Keston from Tbilisi on 15 October. "However, after that there was no public discussion and even the final text was not published." Although some human rights groups and religious leaders have received the latest text - as have the Tbilisi offices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe - the text was not distributed officially. "We only got hold of it on 12 October - just two days before it was signed," Songulashvili added. "I get the feeling it was prepared in a great hurry."

Songulashvili believed that the state was under pressure to adopt the document. "The state had to do something to satisfy the Orthodox Church which was demanding clarification of its historical role as affirmed in the constitution." He believed the document was of "serious political significance" for the Orthodox Church.

Lutheran, Jehovah's Witness and Pentecostal leaders told Keston they had not had access to the text and did not know what was in it.

Among provisions of the concordat are guarantees that the Orthodox Church will be able to recover all the property - both buildings and religious objects - it once owned but which were confiscated during the Soviet period; that the Orthodox Church will be tax-exempt; that the syllabus and staff for religious education in state schools will be controlled by the Orthodox Church; and that Orthodox clergy will be exempted from military service. (END)