GEORGIA: Veto For Patriarchate Over All Church-Building and Religious Literature.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 23 October 2002

Some minority faiths and human rights activists have expressed their fears over a provision of the newly-approved agreement between the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate and the state which gives the Patriarchate a veto on which other religious communities can call themselves Churches and which can produce items used in worship, build churches and publish religious literature. "This is a dangerous and anti-democratic provision. There are five other Orthodox jurisdictions in Georgia - they will be the prime victims of this," Levan Ramishvili, director of the Tbilisi-based human rights group the Liberty Institute, told Keston News Service on 22 October. "But it could be used against other groups too."

The constitutional agreement, or concordat, was signed by Patriarch Ilya and Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in Mtskheta on 14 October (see KNS 15 October 2002). The agreement was approved, as required, by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church on 17 October. Parliament ratified the agreement on 22 October with 203 votes in favour and one against, allowing the agreement to come into force. Parliament will now have to draw up laws to enact the provisions of the agreement.

The text was published in the state newspaper Sakartvelos Respublika (Republic of Georgia) on 15 October (an English translation has been prepared by the Liberty Institute and a Russian translation by the Russian religious affairs website portal-credo.ru).

The controversial Patriarchate monopoly comes in Article 6 part 6 of the agreement, a provision that was inserted at the last minute by the Orthodox and which took many people by surprise when it first became known when the final text of the agreement was published. "With the consent of the Church, the State issues permits or licenses for the use of official symbols and terminology of the Church, as well as for the production, import and distribution of worship items," the article declares.

An appendix to the agreement which defines terminology gives extremely broad definitions of "worship items" that will require the Patriarchate's approval before they can be produced by other religious communities. These include "churches, monasteries and buildings of ecclesiastical purpose (their planning, archaeology, construction, restoration-conservation), ecclesiastical paintings, liturgical items&ldots;, baptismal fonts, book rests, candlesticks, &ldots; censers&ldots;, rosaries &ldots; crockery for holy water, wine, soil, oil and chrism; icons, crosses, ecclesiastic candles, liturgical (ritual) wine&ldots;, holy water&ldots; priests' vestments&ldots; theological-liturgical and spiritual-educational literature, as well as tele-cinema-audio and radio production of the same purpose."

The definitions provided for the "official terminology of the Church" - "Georgian apostolic", "autocephalous", "Orthodox", "Catholicos-Patriarch", "holy synod" - also concern other religious communities, as they would mean that no other Church could use any of this terminology without the Patriarchate's approval. This will particularly affect the various non-Patriarchate Orthodox jurisdictions, which will no longer be allowed to call themselves "Churches", use the words "Orthodox", "Georgian" or "autocephalous" in their titles, use titles like "priest" or "bishop" for their clergy (or even use the word "clergy") or call their places of worship "churches" or "monasteries" (though they would in fact be barred from building any churches without the Patriarchate's permission anyway).

Ramishvili believes this Patriarchate monopoly "endangers religious freedom, as well as freedom of speech and academic freedom".

"This article is directed against us and our Church," Father Zurab Aroshvili of the True Orthodox Church told the website portal-credo.ru on 21 October. "After this agreement we will be outside the law and we will be persecuted, this time by legal means."

He believed his Church - which has published literature criticising the Patriarchate - is the intended target of this provision. "The Patriarchate has been very unhappy about our activity. Only yesterday a representative of the Patriarchate Archimandrite Zenon appeared on television and said that this provision was included in the concordat specially against us and religious organisations like us." He said his Church tried to lobby parliament to prevent it ratifying the concordat and would appeal to the Constitutional Court to overturn this provision. If that failed, he added, his Church would take its complaint to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The True Orthodox Church - an entirely peaceful group that dissociates itself entirely from the religious violence of Fr Vasili Mkalavishvili (see KNS 22 October 2002) - has faced serious obstructions to its work. Under Patriarchate pressure it has been barred from building a church in the town of Kutaisi. True Orthodox sources have told Keston that an extremist Orthodox mob destroyed a church in Shemokmedi in early October.

Council of Europe representatives in both Tbilisi and Strasbourg have denied Orthodox suggestions that it has approved the agreement. "This is not true that the Council of Europe has given the final text its blessing," Natia Japaridze, director of the Tbilisi office of the Council of Europe told Keston on 23 October. "The Council of Europe gave its legal expertise on earlier drafts of the agreement in 2000 and 2001. Since then it has made no comment on the later texts or on the final agreement signed." An official of the human rights directorate agreed. "To my knowledge, since the legal expertise was provided in 2001 there was no further involvement of the Council of Europe in this issue," he told Keston from Strasbourg on 18 October.

Other controversial provisions of the concordat include the immunity from prosecution granted to the Patriarch (see separate KNS article), the veto over religious education in schools granted to the Patriarchate (see KNS 15 October 2002) and Orthodox advantages in restitution of confiscated religious property. (END)