GEORGIA: Mixed Reaction to Orthodox-State Concordat.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 15 October 2002

Views on the new concordat between the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate and the state signed by President Eduard Shevardnadze and Patriarch-Catholicos Ilya II on 14 October (see separate KNS article) have varied widely. In a survey of views among religious minority leaders, Keston News Service has learnt that some feel the agreement is welcome, paving the way for other religious communities to sign similar agreements. Others fear that the very public signature ceremony - widely carried in the Georgian media - will send a signal that minority communities' rights should be further eroded. Many fear the agreement will do nothing to end the widespread violence against religious minority communities, which has seen Baptist, Pentecostal, Jehovah's Witness and True Orthodox believers beaten and their places of worship attacked or destroyed with impunity.

Georgia's ombudsman Nana Devdariani told Keston that although there were many complaints about earlier versions of the concordat, she believes there is no reason for minority faiths to object to it now. "It is important that the concordat cannot be used to harm the interests of followers of other faiths," she told Keston from Tbilisi on 15 October. "This has now been achieved." She noted that in any case, the Georgian constitution which guarantees religious freedom remains the highest legal document, above the concordat.

Devdariani said her office will be making recommendations about the text to the patriarchate and the president's office only about the question of Orthodox religious items still in state hands. She believes they would be better kept in state museums where they can be protected.

She maintained that provisions in the concordat declaring all Orthodox property in the country to be the property of the Patriarchate refers only to property that historically belonged to the Patriarchate. "This will not relate to property newly-acquired by Orthodox of other jurisdictions," she told Keston. "Groups that broke away from the Patriarchate should not be obstructed in their activity - the Patriarchate cannot forbid or allow them to operate."

Devdariani was not sure whether other religious groups in Georgia would sign similar agreements, but believed it was better to continue work on adopting a law on religion (Georgia is the only former Soviet republic without one). "The law on religion should establish the rights of religious communities." She recognised the widespread violation of religious rights at the moment, especially the violence against religious minorities which remains unpunished. "Rights are violated not on paper but in reality," she noted. "The authorities should deal with this. If the violence is not punished it will only get worse."

One supporter of the concordat is Vili Grigoryan, adviser to the council of the Armenian Apostolic diocese of Georgia. "We are positive - the concordat is necessary," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 14 October. He stressed that other major religious communities will also soon begin discussions on signing individual agreements with the state. "We agreed last year with the Patriarchate that all the traditional faiths will sign agreements." He admitted that such discussions have not yet begun, but expected them to do so soon. He added that this was especially important for all faiths as they do not at present have legal status. "Of course we all want legal status."

Many minority religious communities remain suspicious of it. Word of Life leader Pastor Mamuka Jebisashvili believed the concordat would not end the hostility and religiously-motivated violence against minorities. "On the contrary, it will guarantee that non-Orthodox communities will be liquidated," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 15 October.

Likewise, Pastor Gary Azikov, secretary of the Lutheran Church in Georgia, complains that the concordat leaves his Church out in the cold. "We would be positive towards the concordat if there was also a law on religion giving our Church and other religious communities legal status," he told Keston from Tbilisi on 14 October. He said the state chancellery had denied his Church access to the text of the concordat, telling the Lutherans that the text would not be released until after it has been finally agreed.

Bishop Songulashvili believed provisions on religious education in schools remain "obscure". He added that provisions granting the Orthodox Church tax-exempt status could cause it problems. "This could open the door for the Orthodox Church to be misused by the mafia - it could be dangerous for the Orthodox Church." He regretted that the concordat allows restitution only of confiscated Orthodox churches and does not allow other faiths to regain religious buildings confiscated by the Soviet regime. He believes it is now "impossible" for other faiths to sign individual agreements with the government. "This will require constitutional changes - it is not realistic." He believes it is better to have a religion law that abides by international religious liberty commitments.

Emil Adelkhanov of the Caucasian Institute For Peace, Democracy and Development in Tbilisi believes the final version of the concordat represents "something of a compromise between those church circles (and not just them) which were demanding that Orthodoxy be given the status of a state religion and those who insisted on the exclusively secular nature of the Georgian state." He told Keston from Tbilisi on 9 October that the concordat gives the Orthodox Church "by no means all the privileges proposed earlier", but he was concerned that it made a distinction between the Orthodox Church and all other religious communities.

Adelkhanov pointed to the provision on religious education in state schools. "If voluntary study of the catechism is introduced into schools," the concordat declares, "the syllabus is to be drawn up with the participation of the Patriarchate and teachers are not to take part nor be removed without the blessing of the Patriarchate." He regards this as a "much more liberal version" than that proposed earlier.

Despite not having read it, Azikov expressed fears that his Church will be disadvantaged. He criticised the Patriarchate's veto over who can and cannot teach religion in schools. "Where is freedom of religion in that? Non-Orthodox cannot work in schools." He noted that while the Orthodox Church will get its property back, the Lutherans will not be able to regain the surviving churches in Asureti, Bolnisi and near Tsalki, confiscated during the Soviet regime. More importantly, he complained that the Lutherans cannot register their newly-built churches in Tbilisi and Rustavi as religious buildings.

Many other religious communities say they do not know how the concordat will be implemented. "I haven't read it and don't know what's in it," Gennady Gudadze, spokesperson for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Georgia, told Keston from Tbilisi on 15 October. "We don't know what impact it will have." The Jehovah's Witnesses - with more than 130 communities across Georgia and a claimed 15,000 active adult members - have borne the brunt of religious violence over the past few years.

Bishop Malkaz Songulashvili, the head of the Baptist Union, was concerned less about the content of the concordat than about the greater role it will give the Orthodox Church in society, possibly to the detriment of other religious communities. "I don't know what will happen," he told Keston on 15 October. "Hardly any laws here are put into practice. But it could be misused as a hammer to beat the non-Orthodox." (END)